Greg Dobbs contemplates – what’s the meaning of a tip, anyway?

BoomerCafé executive editor and co-founder Greg Dobbs feels a bit curmudgeonly writing about an issue that’s not quite as important as the fiscal cliff, or gun violence, or chaos in Syria. But as a baby boomer, he has seen a steady decline in a practice that’s always been around but now has lost its meaning. The practice? Tipping.

Don’t you get tired of people who harken back to “the good old days?”

Tip for excellent service at a restaurant in Haifa, Israel.

Tip for excellent service at a restaurant in Haifa, Israel.

So do I. But maybe this will be an exception. Because the good old days I want to talk about are the ones when you were expected to tip for exactly two kinds of service: someone at a restaurant who served you a meal, and in the era before an unsung hero (to whom I shall be eternally grateful) put suitcases on wheels, someone at an airport or a hotel who lugged your luggage so you didn’t have to. Okay, maybe you can add in taxi drivers, although in my experience, as often as not I’ve wanted to ask for half my money back as compensation for the sheer terror of the ride. And as long as we’re already expanding the list, hotel maids. Traditionally poorly paid, they deserve a little extra just for the drudgery of their work, changing someone else’s smelly sheets and wiping up someone else’s yucky bathroom.

Yet those hotel maids often are ignored. While with less justification, there are tip jars on just about every sales counter in America. Stroll into Starbucks to drop four bucks on a caramel something-iatto and you’re expected to drop an extra greenback into the tip jar. Or how about the counter at the convenience store? Buy a bag of chips and if you’re not a cheapskate, you’ll deposit the spare change from the cashier into the tip jar. For the cashier.

And how about the driver on a tour bus, the outfitter on a river raft, the attendant at a parking lot?! They don’t exactly hold out a can with TIPS inscribed on it, but they might as well, for the look you’ll get if you don’t slip a bill into their palms.

Greg Dobbs while hosting television coverage of a NASA Shuttle launch.

Greg Dobbs while hosting television coverage of a NASA Shuttle launch.

Then last month, as the holiday season came on, I got nice little Christmas cards from my newspaper deliverer, my postal carrier, and my trash collector. Now, let me be clear: in terms of daily life, there’s little I appreciate more than having my newspaper waiting when I get up, my letters in the box when I stop for them (although when it comes to the bills, not so much!), and my garbage gone by the time I get home at the end of the day. And in each of those cases, I am blessed with 5-star service, as if each provider subscribes to the postal creed of swift service despite snow, rain, heat, or gloom of night.

But here’s a question: isn’t just about everyone I’ve written about here pretty much paid a livable wage already, commensurate with the skills required for the job? Well, maybe not restaurant servers or suitcase carriers; state law here in Colorado and, so far as I know, all across America, says they don’t have to be paid the standard minimum wage, since there always has been an assumption that they earn their money in tips. But aside from that….

And here’s another: what’s the meaning of a tip, anyway? Extra pay for the underpaid? NO. It is a reward for superior service. Believe me, I wouldn’t want to deliver the daily paper when every copy has to be in place by 6 a.m., which is the newspaper’s promise to its residential customers. But while I appreciate my carrier’s incredible allegiance to the alarm clock, that promise is part of the job description and therefore, by definition, not extraordinary. To say nothing of the clerk at the convenience store who is supposed to sell me that bag of chips the same way whether there’s the chance of a tip or not. Although I wonder, what would it look like if the clerk knew no tip was coming?!

The reality is, in some jobs— no matter how well or how poorly people are paid— there is little difference between superior and inferior service. Which means, by leaving a tip, we’re merely rewarding the barista at Starbucks— or the convenience store clerk, the taxi driver, the car wash attendant, the hairdresser, the letter carrier— for doing the job he or she has been hired to do. They’re not hired to do a better job for a tip; they’re hired to do the best job they can do, tip or no tip. One might argue, maybe they should even put a few bucks in our pockets for patronizing their business and keeping them employed.

Now for the sake of disclosure, let me be honest: I’m not the curmudgeon you must imagine I am; I tip darned near everyone. All I’m saying is, I shouldn’t, because the list of people on the receiving end has grown, way beyond the tip’s original purpose.

Next thing you know, even though they’re paid to perform at a high level, we’ll be expected to tip pilots for smooth flights, quarterbacks for touchdown passes, and journalists for good columns. Come to think of it, maybe that’s worth discussing.


  1. Tips have become a way to get rid of small change in retail establishments. Customer service, in general, is abysmal, yet we are still expected to tip. Now it’s just an expectation. I hate it when workers rush to “help” when I don’t need any help, just to get a tip. Oh well….

  2. I fully agree with you and Greg. Having just had my hair done for the holidays at a new salon, I paid out over $200 bucks and still had to tip the hairdresser, at this rate she is making more than I do at my 25 year in service job as a secretary! and let me just say no one tips me, except with this tip “don’t be a secretary”! my hair came out nice though…

  3. Greg,
    I totally agree that tipping has gotten out of hand. That being said, I have no qualms about tipping well (and based on pre-discount totals) for exemplary customer service and not so well or even not at all for non-existent or bad service.

    I’m glad you mentioned hotel housekeepers …. they do have a heck of a job – after having spent 40+ years in the hospitality industry, I can vouch for the fact that these souls have to clean up after the dregs of humanity.

    Cheers and happy Monday!

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