18% or 20%?

Whatever side of the political divide you occupy in the United States, life seems scarier, crazier and less predictable than it did, even just five or ten years ago. At the same time, for most of us, what impacts our personal lives on a daily basis matters most to us. I may be very concerned about disturbing things taking place in medicine, but that worry will keep me awake at night if I don’t believe that our own doctor is giving our family good care. What masquerades as education today appalls me, but if a child or grandchild of mine is involved, it will shoot up to urgent on my ‘to do something about’ list. I might roll my eyes when I see a driver wearing a mask while driving alone in his car, but when my previously friendly neighbors start backing away from unmasked-me in fear, that hits me more strongly. In that vein, what I’m about to say might seem trivial, but as an example of yet another thing fracturing relationships, I think it represents the unraveling of the social contract that used to make it possible to discuss and find common ground on difficult social issues.

My husband and I recently spent time in a community enriched by a wide choice of many kosher restaurants. Because kosher food is available at most major supermarkets, we never go hungry regardless of where we travel in the United States. However, being able to sit down and enjoy good, hot, and fresh food is a huge step up from supermarket crackers, peanut butter and tuna fish. We savored some memorable meals on this trip!

We ate out far more than we normally do when we’re home, and we were powerfully struck by the ubiquitous vanishing of the classic tip. Whether the word tip is actually an acronym for the archaic sounding phrase, ’to insure promptitude’ or not, a tip used to be optional. Americans in particular were generally good tippers, despite social opposition in the late 1800s and early 1900s that saw tipping as anti-democratic. From that perspective, it is not easy for waiters and waitresses to find their finances largely dependent on the good will tips of patrons. It smells of snobbery. In addition, it certainly is challenging for a hard-working and cheerful waiter to be stiffed. It is difficult to be constantly uncertain about how much money one will be taking home each day.

Nonetheless, on our trip, we were disappointed to see an 18% tip automatically added to all our restaurant bills. While the opportunity to add even more was always an option, we were not presented with the choice of adding less. That surcharge seemed forced in the same way that for years we bought orange juice in 64-ounce containers and then, suddenly, 12 ounces were removed from the most current 52-ounce packaging while the price remained as it had been before. We feel tricked.

At the restaurants, we also felt a subtle diminution in the waiter/patron relationship. We always try to be courteous to wait staff. For the most part, we see reciprocity. Smiling, cheerfully explaining options, and seeming to really care that we enjoy our meal are the hallmarks of good wait staff. While we’re not so naive as to think that these (usually) young people are working solely for the fun of it, doing the job well makes it more pleasant for them and for their customers. The fact that we used to reward exceptional service with a bigger tip was a way to acknowledge the ‘soft-skills’ of the waiter. In our entire marriage I can think of only one time that we left no tip (or perhaps way below average) as a way of expressing our extreme disappointment with the service. But having that option made our usual tipping a joyful choice on our part.

On this trip, what we wanted to give was irrelevant. Whether propelled by increasingly poor customer behavior, by the tax code, or for any other reason, this new policy led to slightly less enjoyment in eating out. The tip seemed to be a way of getting more money out of us rather than a way for us to show appreciation for someone’s hard work. Maybe this ‘new normal’ is a better way, but right now I’m not feeling it.

What do you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts on this Susan’s Musings post.
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