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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

 June 10, 2003
   Vol. 1, No. 11

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"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

Tipping: the difference between gratitude and expectation

By Joan Chittister, OSB

First, let me explain that I just came back from Japan. Secondly, I need to tell you that I hurt my shoulder carrying luggage. Those two things ought to help put this column in perspective. As a result of those apparently unrelated incidents, I found myself thinking about something that had not crossed my mind in years: the American custom of tipping.

I remember the scene all too well. A foreign visitor and I had stopped for a salad and sandwich at the hotel restaurant near the Cleveland Airport. She paid the bill. As we were getting into our car in the parking lot, the waiter ran after us bill in hand. "You forgot the tip," he said to my friend. "Forgot what?" she said. She was ashamed; I was embarrassed. It wasn't easy to explain. She was from a country where tipping is almost unknown. Here, I said, tipping is expected. "But why?" she said. "Don't you pay your waiters?"

It was a good question.

I have always had a thing about tipping. My parents taught me that tipping had something to do with good service. If you got "good service," you tipped. You left money beyond the total of the bill for the waiter herself because she had done more than simply take orders and deliver dishes to the table. It meant that you got more than what you had a right to expect. You tipped to acknowledge the nice smile. The quick refill of coffee. The extra steps. I grew up hearing my mother say to my father, "Leave a little extra, Dutch. She was so good about taking the steak back to be finished."

On the other hand, surly, slow, brusque service never got a tip. Not from my mother. The lesson was very clear: to get tipped you had to be good at what you did and caring about the people you served. You didn't "expect" a tip; you earned a tip.

Then, someplace along the line, the economic system took a turn and service with it. All of a sudden, tips ceased to be related to service and began to be related to a percentage of the bill. And the service personnel came to depend on it. For instance, despite the so-called minimum wage legislation in the country, a student working in a restaurant in San Francisco, one of the "beautiful people" places in the world, earns $2.95 an hour. The rest of her "salary" she's told would come from tips.

Restaurant owners, in other words, had quit paying the service personnel a decent wage and expected the clientele to do it for them. They hired young people and worked them for next to nothing on the grounds that the tips they made were equal to a salary and that was enough for them. Tips became the mainstay of the business.

But the new service economy didn't end there. Next came the "service charge," in which restaurant owners passed the wages of service personnel directly on to customers by specifying exactly what percentage of the bill -- 15% to 20% in most cases -- a diner should add to the stated price of the fare. A dinner for four in a four-star restaurant that cost $300 could require an additional "tip" of $45 to $60. At the end of the night, back and front of house personnel divide the income between them.

Now customers pay for the meal and for the service. The owner provides the food and the facility only. I began to wonder what would happen if I brought my own server, a cousin maybe or a next door neighbor with nothing better to do for the night than serve my table and taste the extras in the kitchen.

Tipping had become an expectation, not a gesture of gratitude, not a reward for work well done. Instead, tipping became a cover-up for the payment of slave wages.

Now, I believe in tipping. I like being able to recognize good work, good service, special skill. But I do not like being forced to do it. It's not that I don't want good service personnel to be rewarded, but I don't like being put into a position where all I can do is "tip" the tip, I mean, add even more money to an already inflated expense. I do not like being forced to reward bad service, which I fear creates a service culture based on handouts. Most of all, I don't like having to support industries that don't pay a living wage. I don't like being made a collaborator in a sector of society that purports to charge one thing but really charges another.

What I would like, at the very least, is that the minimum wage apply to all industries and that those costs be passed along to me evenly and honestly, as they are in every other organization. Then, if I don't want to eat there because it's too expensive for me, I can eat somewhere else. Most of all, wherever I eat, I want to decide whether the personnel is as good -- or as bad -- as the food, and respond accordingly.

I don't like knowing that what I don't add to an already established price can be the difference between the rent and the baby formula for the waiter who's serving me. From where I stand, that's just another kind of mugging -- either of the waiter or of me.

Oh, I almost forgot to explain the context of this column. I had just returned from Japan where they don't allow tipping and where the service is superb. Then, dragging a suitcase and carrying a computer and a purse, I hailed a cab in New York City. The driver never moved as I struggled to swing the suitcase onto the back seat. I felt the pain in the shoulder then; I still feel it now. "I'm not going to tip this man," I told myself, my mother's voice clucking in my ear. But when we got to the airport, I remembered my own Irish immigrant roots. I looked at the driver whose steady patter I could barely understand and thought of his children and the wife who couldn't get a job because she doesn't speak English at all. And I turned around and put extra money in his hand. But believe me, it wasn't a tip. It was a donation. It definitely wasn't for service.

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