Tipping For Hospitality: Theory and Practice

July 12, 2015

via 401(K) 2012 on Flickr. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The biggest percentage tip I've ever made was $30 on a $30 lunch. I was working in New York City as a barista and bartender at Vandaag, a high-concept Nordic cafe/restaurant that briefly burned bright. Though it collapsed in mismanagement, working there showed me many valuable truths, including how radically exceeding guests' expectations—from your service to your product to your humanity—can radically increase the you tips earn.

The woman who left that tip was mid-to-late 40s, white, and I quickly learned, a lawyer. She had come in for a lunch by herself at the bar, and the cafe was quiet, so I spent quite a bit of time chatting her up (being gay and seeing a ring, this was very much of the winking-ly complimentary, we both know I'm sugaring for a tip variety). It was the summer of Occupy Wall Street and the subprime mortgage crisis in the USA, and as conversation turned to these topics, she revealed that her husband was a banker, and that in their opinion, basically these "poor people are at fault for defaulting on their mortgages." I was of the opinion that the bankers shared some, if not the majority of the blame for creating and bundling the predatory mortgages, and we got into quite the heated discussion.

After about twenty minutes of debate (with much detail and good points, on both sides), it became clear that we simply were not going to agree, though we understood each other's viewpoints. I felt it said a lot about her that she was willing to have that argument genuinely with me, and judging by the tip she clearly felt it said a lot about me that I had that argument while still giving her excellent service and products.

This moment was a perfect storm of the many vectors that cause people to tip, from service to socioeconomic to interpersonal, and hopefully unpacking it will help you understand how to earn better tips yourself. After all, as a rational economic actor in a (far from perfect) tip-compensated system, it is a barista's duty to do everything they possibly can to maximize their own precarious compensation. If you're reading this from a country where baristas aren't tipped, bully for you, but I hope you may still learn something about the complex social dynamics of humans serving each other, and the obligations that creates.

Sharing = Service

Sharing food with another person is one of the very first ways we came together in social relation, and over the millennia this prototypical social interaction has become one of our most emotionally fraught classes of social interactions. On the one end is the deeply emotional and intimate dinner amongst lovers, family, or close friends; on the other, the radically depersonalized, atomized economic transaction of modern commercial food service.

Deeply intertwined with the idea of sharing food or drink is the idea of service: specifically, one person serving another. Whether it is our neanderthal ancestor ripping off a leg of meat from the deer they caught and offering it to a tribe-member, or the completely impersonal passing of the online delivery bag from the courier, one person is still doing something for another. This is an exchange where one party willingly goes "out of their way" to sustain another.

Inherent in this idea of service is the unequal exchange, the fact that the serving party is acting against their immediate interests. There are a number of reasons one can give for why someone might do this: altruism and social good will; recognition and reinforcement of social bonds; or pure economic motivation. Even in rigidly commercial settings, the motivations for service tend to be a complex blend—all that is economically required is the provision of the purchased product, with everything else, all the ephemera of 'hospitality,' being provided under at least the guise of the more 'human' dimensions of serving.

One could argue that the giving of the tip lays bare that lie we tell about service workers doing it for the love: if all the nice social and emotional work the server is doing is 'genuinely human,' why is it paid for with a tip? The answer here is that all service, no matter how 'genuine,' creates a reciprocal relationship, or more specifically, a social debt. There is nothing unloving about social obligation.

You may happily and freely serve your mother dinner when she comes to visit, but implicit in that service is the assumption that were you to go to her house, she would repay the unequal transaction by herself serving you. Even sharing dinner with a friend where you split the bill creates a light assumption: that the sharing was pleasurable and either party would make time to do it again if called upon. Building these reciprocal relationships is what makes service so powerful, and has made sharing food such a foundational social activity.

Economic Debt & Social Debt

The problem with introducing the abstraction of economic exchange into service is that it removes the standard ways of repaying the service debt. There are precious few customer - server relationships where the customer is ever going to have occasion to serve in return. Yet the customer is still indebted to the server socially, or at least, indebted to the server who does the work of hospitality and goes beyond the barest product-exchange of the initial economic transaction.

Being in social debt is an uncomfortable position for anyone, and when possible we like to resolve it as quickly and definitively as possible. The second economic exchange of the tip allows the customer to right the scales, leaving behind any feelings of guilt at being served by someone they will likely never have any other sort of reciprocal social relationship with.

But how does this all relate to our woman left at the bar, and her outsize tip?

Well, if tipping is about resolving the social debt created by hospitality, then logically the larger the tip, the larger the feeling of social debt it is resolving. Examining what exactly causes depths of social feelings is a fascinating and fraught subject. One of the most dominant schools of thought here is what's called Social Exchange Theory, and one of its fundamental ideas is that in an exchange, the feeling of debt is magnified depending on the levels of status and intimacy in the relationship between the two parties. Being served by someone you perceive to be very intimately related to you, or of the same or higher status level than you feels like a much bigger "service" than being served by a stranger, or someone perceived to be below you.

This makes certain intuitive sense: at the family reunion, it's the cousins clearing the plates, not Grandma, and it's almost never the CEO making coffee for the staff. Whether social or economic, power and status have a lot to do with determining who is perceived as "obligated" to serve, and in turn determining how indebted we may feel when served.

So why exactly did this woman feel that she was particularly socially indebted to me? I'm proposing that there were 4 main motivators of her perceived social debt, all based on things I had "given" her: 1. Intimacy 2. Quality of Service 3. Socioeconomic Identification 4. Novelty.

Intimacy In Service

Intimacy in service is a delicate line to walk—come off as overly familiar and many people are turned off, while overly robotic service is never fun for anyone—but it's also one of the most fundamental skills of a service professional. Intimacy can take light forms, like the casual banter that comes from seeing regulars day in and day out; or intimacy can be deeper, like knowing a regular's kids' names and how they're doing because you see and talk with that regular most of the days they are alive.

In the case of the woman at the bar, I had never met her before and never did again, but I was able to give her two forms of intimacy. For light intimacy, I recognized that she was flying solo for lunch and wanting a bit of company, so I started casually chatting with her. I was also complimentary, I believe starting with commenting on how I liked her watch (throw away compliments and questions about apparel being a great entré to a guest conversation), and noticing that she was in a bit of lively mood, found that she appreciated what became a bit of shameless flirting.

I also gave her a much deeper form of intimacy though: I fully engaged with the things she was talking with me about, and was willing to have a quite exhaustive argument with her about them. There is something undeniably emotionally intimate about a close, heated argument, and being able to engage in it and then disengage respectfully was I think exhilarating for both sides.

Intimacy creates a fairly obvious form of social obligation: almost definitionally you identify more with someone the more intimate you are with them, feeling yourselves to be on a more even status level, thereby deepening the obligation created from being served.

Some may decry the first form of intimacy I practiced as disingenuous or inappropriate. I don’t know that either criticism is wrong per se—we start every transaction by selling a lie that the customer will have the best time/product ever, and then it is up to us to live up to that lie as the experience progresses. And as to appropriateness? Well, anyone who has actually served humans for a living can tell you that it involves a lot of inappropriate things.

It's tempting to argue that as long as both the server and guest feel they are being adequately respected (and their debts compensated!), there is almost no form of service that is inherently inappropriate. Except for the fact that for female service workers, flirting (or even just serving!) is often far from “harmless,” and can lead to all sorts of inappropriate, and even potentially dangerous situations.

Maybe tipping has some serious flaws...

Quality of Service

Now is an important moment for two digressions:

  1. When I am referring to service right now, I mean every aspect of producing and serving the food and drink to this woman, including the quality of products served. I view service as distinct from hospitality, which would be all of the things one does to make a guest feel welcome, beyond correctly serving your products.
  1. Tipping for good “service” is not a particularly rational decision: the occasions where you actually return to the same restaurant and are served by the same person are very rare (and the kitchen doesn't know you from god usually), so you are not directly investing in continued good service. Though it must be mentioned that the case of the regular at a coffee shop is a notable exception where tipping actually makes direct economic sense in that you may see that barista again most days you live in a place.

Returning to the service I gave this woman, it was impeccable, if you’ll allow me to say so. It started with amicably chatting with her as I walked her through the menu. I took her order, made her a beautiful cappuccino (while still mostly looking at and talking with her), presented the food, and helped her find a good wine to pair with it as we started getting into our argument. A different word for impeccable here might be effortless, or more specifically, effortless-seeming. The essence of what I was able to offer the woman was a deeply skilled service dance, moving behind the bar in such a way that she felt completely in capable hands.

It is this idea of capable hands that is crucial to the debt of quality service. As we've established, being served can be an intimate experience, and this intimacy can cause anxiety as to how well it will be handled. As with any intimate operation, feeling like you are in the hands of a professional is a rewarding, relaxing experience. It maintains and heightens the intimacy, deepening the feeling of reciprocal social obligation.

Even people who are comparatively unaware of the inner-workings of service work can often get an instinctual feel for capability in service, and this is one of the reasons that Quality of Service is often believed to be one of the primary determinants of tip. In reality, engaging in the calm, professional service dance is only the starting point of great tips, but it is one of the easiest areas to focus on and train.

Unfortunately, a guest's perceptions of the quality of service being provided also have much to do with their own general beliefs on who can be of equal status, and hence intimate, with them. Men in particular are much more likely to view other men as skilled professionals, in almost any field, while deflecting social indebtedness to women by dismissing a woman's professional prowess as merely an expected part of their "natural" servile role.

Once again, earning tips, and the social dynamics behind it, may have some serious flaws.

Socioeconomic Identification & The Debasement Of Service

Gender is far from the only variable that can affect a guest's perception of a server. Race and socioeconomic class most assuredly have their roles to play as well: even the most cursory familiarity with the history of racism should point to how professional service is devalued and often 'expected' of minorities, and class is of course inextricable from any such discussions.

In a nutshell, debasing jobs are overwhelmingly low-paying, lower-class jobs, and that is sadly seen by many to be how things rightly should be. One way to resolve the social obligation of being served is to deny any obligation at all, by naturalizing the service along class lines and thereby erasing any status claims. In this case, the tip (if there even is one), forces the interaction into purely economic lines, affirming the tipper's social dominance and minimizing the potential for generating larger tips with additional hospitality.

What I was able to do with the woman seated at the bar was force her to see beyond standard server/served class lines and see me as a fully realized individual, one with status and knowledge enough to challenge her claims, in terms familiar to her class position.

Now, I am blessed to have grown up a white male with class access, going to very good educational institutions, all of which has given me a good deal of skill at, basically, speaking the rich white person dialect. None of which is to say that it is impossible for someone with a different gender, race, or class background than me to have engaged this woman in the way I did. But the sad reality is that because of who I am and my background, it was probably much easier for me engage in a complex status game with this woman, slipping past normal expectations of a serving relationship to deeply challenge her in a way that she nonetheless felt was respectful and engaging. This equalization of status in turn magnified the feeling of social obligation from being served by me, helping increase the tip.

Whether she specifically would have felt the same with someone else is up for debate, but there is no doubt in my mind that on the average, privileged white males have a substantially easier time being acknowledged for outsize hospitality with an outsize tip.

Tipping, indeed, has some problems.

Novelty in Service

Leaving aside for a second the more complex reasons one might tip, I think that in the case of this woman I served at Vandaag, a substantial part of the motivation for leaving a 100% tip was the novelty factor of the experience. I know I entertained and surprised her, in every moment of the experience.

There's the initial novelty of product and space: whatever its problems, the food and drink programs at Vandaag were quite on point, offering an inventive, at the time rare for the city, new-Nordic take on café standbys. The space itself was airy and beautiful. The bar was laid out well so that when I poured a five-layer heart on her cappuccino, I was able to look her in the eye and wink as she could see my hands glide.

Then there's the deeper novelty of a truly warm, engaging hospitality interaction. Being genuinely welcoming and interested in guests as humans can catch some people off guard—it's certainly not the norm in many service situations, at least in part due to how taxing it can be to provide. But being open and encouraging of those deeper connections with guests can lead to incredible things.

What I think took this experience into the truly novel realm for this woman was how deeply I challenged her beliefs in our Occupy Wall Street argument. There's the surface novelty there of finding a server using their college degree to talk eloquently to her—though perhaps not that novel, at least in NYC—and the much more forceful novelty of having her political beliefs challenged at length by a stranger.

Whatever the specific blend of novelty for her, in the end, I'm confident that it felt like a unique experience. This is ultimately the way to create the biggest feeling of social obligation and hence the biggest tip: give someone a truly novel experience in their life—few things feel more like a gift than relief from life's tedium.

Giving the Gift of Service

Every time you serve someone, you are giving them the gifts of nourishment and respite, both physically and emotionally. Very few gifts indeed are truly given with zero obligations or expectations, and service is no different. Whether it's for the tip, or the emotional satisfaction of a rewarding interpersonal interaction, a server gives the gift of their energy and emotional engagement to each guest. This is indeed a gift, since after all, there is no guarantee that a given interaction is going to be emotionally rewarding (in fact, the rewardings are often the exception), and there is certainly no guarantee that the tip will be commensurate with the service and hospitality provided.

And here we arrive at the central issue of tipping: it is discretionary. No matter how hard you may work to give truly exceptional service and hospitality, a guest may not perceive that excellence, whether that's because of questions of race/gender/class, or simply because the guest has decided they are having a bad day. And the tipped worker's ability to nourish and house themselves hangs in the balance.

Further, tipping can lead to a highly militant attitude towards a server’s emotional work, leading to justifications of things like my egregious flirting (and the potentially problematic gender dynamics behind it), under the banner of getting that almighty dollar.

Three thousand words and in, it's my hope that you now have a clearer understanding of why people may tip, how it is possible to maximize the tips you earn, and why the whole arrangement of tipping has some serious problems.

Next week, I want to examine tipping in closer relation to coffee service, to better understand those problems and suggest some potential solutions.

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