MC (as in "emcee", not "mick") Slim JB

MC (as in "emcee", not "mick") Slim JB
Illustration by Natalie Dee

01 April 2010

Shaming Lousy Tippers Into Better Behavior

A new style of restaurant check has emerged that has the potential to mitigate an old problem we've all experienced: the great dinner out with friends that gets sullied by a less-than-savory settling up of the bill because there are one or more cheap tippers in the group. See if you recognize either of these scenarios:
  • The check lands in front of you. You announce the check total. Everyone in the party throws in a wad of cash. Somehow the total doesn't cover the food and drinks, tax, and a decent tip (say, 18%).
  • The check arrives, and everyone throws in a credit card. The restaurant does the division, either equally or to your specifications; each diner completes their individual check. Returning to the table to collect a forgotten item, you notice that the check on top of the pile includes a 7% tip.
Such moments are uncomfortable, and they can get ugly. If I notice an inadequate total, I will usually cover the deficit myself rather than make a scene at the table or stiff the server. If I can identify the cheapskate, I will have a private conversation with them about it later: “Don't do that again, or I won't invite you out with us again.” I've had friends shrug or get angry and tell me to go to hell. Others have apologized and agreed. I try to exercise as much tact as possible in this situation, but one way or another, I make sure they don't try to pull a similar stunt around me again.

Being a miserly tipper is a character flaw in my book, an impediment to friendship, and I eventually shun repeat offenders. I find it baffling when folks aren't ashamed about their cheapness and undertipping, but many are not. I suspect that some people undertip because they think their bad behavior is invisible: in the scenarios I outlined above, they stand a good chance of their skinflinting going undetected by their friends.

Enter a genius new solution: the split-but-still-communal restaurant check. (It's new to me, anyway: I wonder what the proper term for it is.) I got my first such check at dinner recently in a Boston restaurant. It works like this for a party of four splitting the check four ways. The check arrives, everyone throws in a credit card, the server runs them and returns with five copies of the receipt, which all look like this:
______________________________
Total: $200

Fred's Mastercard xxxx1234: $50
Tip: _____
Total: _____
Signature: _____

Jerry's Visa xxxx2345: $50
Tip: _____
Total: _____
Signature: _____

Louise's Amex xxxx3456: $50
Tip: _____
Total: _____
Signature: _____

Chloe's Discover xxxx4567: $50
Tip: _____
Total: _____
Signature: _____
______________________________

Everyone gets one copy of the receipt for their own records (that's four of the five copies). The last copy of the split-but-communal check is the restaurant's, and it must be filled out by each diner in succession. The tip you leave gets passed around; everyone after you sees it. (Signing last might let you get away with something, but you still risk being exposed if someone asks to see the check again, say, to "recheck their math".) It's harder to hide if you're screwing the server on the gratuity. Your bad behavior is far less likely to be invisible to your dining companions.

I love the idea of this new type of check splitting, and hope it catches on. It has the potential to shed a little sunshine on tightwads, perhaps shaming them into the humanly decent and socially customary tipping behavior they ought to be exhibiting. Lest we forget, restaurant server gratuities aren't just some nice-to-do-if-you-feel-like it, optional practice in the US. Quite the contrary: tips provide the lion's share of compensation to nearly everyone in the front of the house, including your server, other servers who help out, service waiters, buspeople, bar staff, and in some establishments, the sommelier, captain/headwaiter and/or manager.

For Massachusetts service workers who depend on tips, $2.63 is the typical hourly wage, a fraction of the $8/hour minimum enjoyed by most workers. Even worse, substandard tips bite servers twice: they are liable for taxes on a percentage of sales (which varies according to a somewhat complicated IRS formula based on the restaurant's past two years' credit and debit card receipts -- 15% is not unusual) even if you stiff them.

At the end of the day, I consider proper tipping not just the socially correct thing to do, but the moral one as well. I am hopeful that split-communal checks will nudge more restaurant patrons into the proper tipping habit. I wish more people had simply learned this as part of their upbringing, but many clearly haven't, and if social shame is what it takes to make them better restaurant customers and human beings, so be it.

*****

I've made some assumptions above, as follows:
  • I assume that there is consensus at the table that the service was at least adequate, that any undertipping is out of cheapness, not a response to poor service.
  • I'm also assuming that no one at the table is in straitened financial circumstances, that everyone can equally afford the cost of dining out, including tax and tip. One could argue that if you can't afford to pay your fair share at the chosen venue, you shouldn't be dining there, but that is a more complicated and delicate scenario than the one I'm addressing here.
  • I take it as given that there will be unintended consequences to this new check type, like what happens when everyone in the party is a cheap d-bag. In such a case, it could backfire: the first Scrooge might validate everyone else's rationalizations of their own penny-pinching. On the other hand, it might drive a bunch of hedge-fund guys to try to outdo each other with the size of their big swinging tips. I can live with that; I just wonder what other unanticipated outcomes might arise.
  • My examples assume that you usually play it loose when dividing checks, that you don't sweat paying for your friends' five extra cocktails or foie gras appetizer. Why wouldn't you care? Because at some point, you have been or will be the more extravagant eater/drinker. Some folks like to break dinner checks down to the cent. My friends and I like to skip the niggling at the end of a nice meal and just divide by round numbers – we figure it all comes out in the wash. Occasionally, we may do more math, e.g., to ensure our teetotaling friends don't have to subsidize our alcohol costs. But that only affects the pre-tip amount. Whether you divide evenly or itemize down to the blue-cheese-dressing upgrade, everyone still has to tip like a mensch.