Gratuitous Thoughts On Gratuities

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With great power comes great responsibility. This is well understood by Americans. To whom much is given, much is expected. We get that, too. So why do we tolerate app after app designed solely to demand tips in ever stranger consumer transactions? Coders are misusing the Promethean gift of point of sale technology. Surely we’d be concerned if we woke up and discovered that the internet, having strayed from noble beginnings, was mostly being used to ogle Kardashians. Oh, wait.

So the horse has left the barn. This doesn’t mean we must make the same mistake twice, and ignore this gathering storm of tip-proliferation. Young economists in a hurry will provide intellectual cover, assuring us universal tipping is the new normal, a mainstay of America’s “gig” economy. But how many of them know the word “gig” comes from Gaius Tullius Gigus, a wily, early-Roman Empire general contractor who charged for services outside of the agreed master contract? 

Not an alternative history fan? Fine, Here’s a current example. Recently I bought sushi at a food court. It’s not really a food court. I just love saying that around its hipster vendors with their artisanal honey, gods-eyes and whatnot. At the point of sale, I swiped my credit card and the clerk swung the screen around for me to sign, or so I thought. Before I could settle up, I was given these choices: 15 percent, 20 percent, Custom and then, far off and in barely visible font, No Tip. (While I didn’t ask, I’m fairly certain Pound Sand, You Haven’t Done Squat won’t come standard in the 2.0 version.)

Salespeople call this anchoring, the shift to a default expectation of a tip. Geostrategists call it paradigm shift. I call it shakedown: we shouldn’t be talking about a tip in the context of take-out sushi. And to be clear, I didn’t call in the order, which was straightforward. There was no curbside delivery. This was just me waiting in line for a standard delivery-versus-payment trade, no additional terms. Why does this trouble me so? Let me count the ways:

First, timing. You haven’t even prepared my order yet, let alone brought it to me quickly and correctly. And this matters because if you accidentally bring eel, two things will happen. First, I’ll blow up like a tick at an Alpharetta dog park. And second, I’ll need that extra scratch for emergency room parking. And you want a tip on the front end? Hank Aaron hit 755 home runs before the Hall of Fame came calling. Let’s first see how you do at the plate.

Second, body language. You must know you’re being grabby. I think that’s why you swing the screen my way, so you can sheepishly look at your shoes. Deep down you know a gratuity isn’t called for. Can you imagine a funeral director putting a palm out for seating the bereaved near the casket? Or a dermatologist removing a suspicious mole and then demanding a little something for the effort? 

Third, prattle. This part is not without its humor, for this is when you justify your tip by pointing out obvious things like the difference between soy sauce and chopsticks. It’s a time-honored tradition, like when the hotel bellhop tells you what warm and cool mean on thermostat, or what can be found in the ice machine. But at least he dragged heavy luggage to your room, and did so in that monkey suit. He’s earned a little cheddar.

Fourth, fairness. This is the most important one. After placing my order, here’s what I do: get chopsticks, get napkins, get soy sauce, get bottled water, find a table, listen for my order, retrieve my order, clean my table and when I’m all finished, pitch my trash. Here is what you do: relay the three rolls I want to the sushi chef. Tip? I shouldn’t be giving you a tip. You should be giving me a W-2. 

At least there was no dreaded “round up” question at the register. When this happens, when I’m asked if I want to round up to support local glass blowers, I earnestly respond “no thanks; do you care to round down? Those wings at the Rangers game tonight aren’t going to pay for themselves.” But this time I didn’t get that question, which would have caused the fur to fly.

I know I’m swimming against the tide, and though I’ll win the occasional battle I’ll surely lose the war. So as they say in the bond market, I won’t fight the Fed. Instead I’ll design my own app. It lets you charge my card, but only after considering tipping me for my concise orders, courtly manners, etc. We’ll just net payment flows, and who knows? I may come out making money.