Tiptoeing into a minefield

Photo by Leslie Dinaberg

Photo by Leslie Dinaberg

Tipping may not be a city in China, but it sure feels like I’m in foreign territory when I get out my wallet. I understand restaurants, but everything else feels a little like…well, China.

Hairdressers and hotel maids are confusing enough, but those ubiquitous countertop jars really get on my nerves. Especially the ones with passive- aggressive little sayings like “Support Counter Intelligence” or “Fear Change? Leave it Here.”

In some cases, like when I order my latte, I’m giving a tip with no guarantee of even getting my coffee, let alone having it served in an efficient and friendly manner. It’s a pre-tip.

I feel guilty not leaving anything, but I feel violated leaving a dollar pre-tip on an already overpriced $5 cup of coffee.

Especially if it’s cold.

If I do decide to leave a pre-tip, it’s more of a reflection on whether or not I’m having a good hair day, a happy bank account day or a right amount of caffeine day, than it is a reflection on the actually quality of service rendered.

But what am I going to do if the service is bad? Fish my dollar out of the jar? Heaven forbid the barista, or the people in line that I don’t know and will probably never see again, might think I was crazy, or worse yet – cheap!

My discomfort with tipping goes back to my Grandpa Jules, who, upon being seated at a restaurant, used to put an enormous pile of bills on the table and tell the server, “I will guarantee you this tip if the service is perfect, but every time you make a mistake I’m going to take some money away.”

Nothing like having a guarantee that your food will arrive to your table swimming in spit. Yum. It’s no wonder that my sister and I feigned illness before going out to dinner with him, and afterward actually became ill from the combination of embarrassment and server saliva.

Mind-boggling revenge fantasies are being played out in restaurant kitchens every day. If you don’t believe me, check out the war stories on www.stainedapron.com or www.bitterwaitress.com. There is even something I’ve long-feared, but never had proof of until now: the “Sh*tty Tipper Database.”

I knew it!

I remember being taught as a kid (by my other Grandpa, Alex) that tip stood for “to insure promptness,” and 15 percent was what you tipped for good service, while 20 percent was what you gave for excellence.

If the “18 percent gratuity added” line on the bill from a recent dinner with “a party of six or more” is any indication, my Grandfather’s relatively simple calculations have now gone the way of the 4.0 straight A grade-point- average.

In case you need to know what to tip the cabin steward on your next transatlantic cruise, or the Keno runner on your next tip to Vegas, there are tipping guides galore-including a bunch of apps–but is there anyone who isn’t confused about tips when you’re picking up takeout? Especially when you’re paying by credit card in a place that normally has table service?

The cashier is staring at you, and so is that empty tip line, just waiting to be totaled. You’d feel like a real jerk if you zero it out, but it seems ridiculous to give more than a dollar or two to someone who took a bag and walked it from the kitchen. Yet a dollar feels like an awfully small tip on a $27 meal. Yet if you figure out how many words you had to write just to earn that dollar, and then you think about the poor cashier, who probably gets paid minimum wage and is sending money home to her family in China … well, it’s enough to make you want to move to China.

I hear that real estate is cheap in the city of Tipping, which according to my Atlas is perched on the riverbank of Denial.

Share your tips-or additions to the Sh*tty Tipper Database-with email. For more columns visit www.LeslieDinaberg.com.  Originally published in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on January 6, 2012.

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