Liz Pulliam Weston

The Basics

The rude new tip-jar economy

There are times you should tip and other times you may wish to, but we're getting squeezed like never before. Here's my tip: Don't cave in to the pressure.

By Liz Pulliam Weston
MSN Money

I pride myself on knowing how to tip and on being a generous tipper. But a recent encounter left me reeling.

I got a massage from a chain that offered a $35 special rate. It was a good massage, so I'd planned to tip 20% of the usual $49 cost. That is, until I hit the checkout counter and saw a sign informing me that the minimum tip was $10 and a really good tip was $20.

My brain froze. I wanted the masseuse to know I had appreciated her work. I put a second $10 in the tip envelope. But as soon as I hit the street, I was ticked.

Because I knew I'd been had. The massage was good, but the provider did not deserve a 41% tip.

There's no question tipping is part of the social convention in the U.S. But, increasingly, we're being pressured to tip more and in more situations than ever before.

Resisting the changes makes us feel like jerks, but giving in makes us feel like chumps. Either way, it's embarrassing.

Gratuitous affronts

Just a few examples of these little outrages:

  • Those tip jars that have popped up on seemingly every counter in America, even at fast-food counters and, amazingly, some drive-throughs.
  • Apparently mandatory "service charges" of 15% to 20% now added to bills for restaurants (especially when a group is involved), cruises and hotel room service.
  • People who in the past didn't accept tips, such as hair salon owners, but who now seem to expect them.
  • Businesses that allow you to tip only in cash, rather than add it to your credit card slip.

I certainly understand that customs change, as I wrote in "Here's a tip: 20% is the new 15%." But I want choice in where and how I tip -- a choice that some businesses seem determined to take away.

Etiquette expert Peter Post agrees with me, but only to a point. He doesn't like tip jars or other attempts to strong-arm customers into unnecessary payments, and he was satisfyingly outraged by my massage experience.

"I'm astonished somebody would do that," said Post, the director of The Emily Post Institute and author of five etiquette books, including "The Etiquette Advantage in Business:Personal Skills for Professional Success." "They're creating frustration for their customers, and that's not a good idea. They should just raise the price rather than doing what they're doing."

But Post actually likes having service charges included in restaurant bills, because he thinks our tipping customs in this area are a big hot mess.

The reality of tipping

Instead of providing incidental rewards for a job well done, he points out, restaurant patrons in the U.S. are expected to make up for the often ridiculously low wages -- in many states, well below federal minimum wage -- that restaurants are allowed to pay their wait staffs.

"We know that they are underpaid in many states. The tradition is that (wait) people aren't paid a living wage," Post said. "Like it or not, that's the way it is."

Etiquette and common decency preclude us from protesting the system by denying the wait staff a customary tip. But not everyone plays the game by the rules, leaving restaurant workers vulnerable to the whims of bad tippers.

Service charges level the playing field, ensuring the wait staff makes a decent living while still allowing patrons to reward special service with an extra tip, Post said.

I may grudgingly have to concede his point there. Another advantage, in my view: There's a paper trail for most of the server's income. Cash tips encourage tax evasion, which isn't fair to those of us who try to pay our fair shares.

Risking customer resentment

Restaurants and other businesses that break with long-held custom risk a customer backlash. I certainly don't feel warm and fuzzy about Massage Envy, the place that guilt-tripped me into over-tipping.

I talked to Dallas Bennewitz, the chain's spokesman, who said Massage Envy doesn't have a corporate policy on tipping. But he said the $49 rate I saw advertised was actually the rate for "members" who sign up for a year's worth of massages and that the "nonmember" rate was twice that.

Continued: What I know for sure

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