Alex Beam

The 15 percent non-solution

There’s a price to be paid for preferring to tip only when absolutely necessary - and at a rate from a bygone era

Everywhere I go, I get the 15 percent fisheye. It’s driving me nuts.

I tip 15 percent almost everywhere. I never tip on the tax - the government didn’t deliver any services; quite the contrary - and with taxis, I deduct the tolls and various, chimerical Massport fees that appear mysteriously on digital taxi meters. I’ve learned that some people don’t tip on the alcohol portion of a restaurant bill. Heck, I’m not that cheap.

Still, I’m treated like a pariah.


My problems began a few years ago, in those all-too-common, bourgeois-couples’-night-out dining situations. When the bill arrived, I would brandish my non-gold, non-ebony, non-platinum, non-ice-blue, non-corporate credit card, and declare, “Let’s split this down the middle!’’ Yes, even though the other guy’s wife chugged three glasses of some overpriced New Zealand plonk and “just a taste’’ of a triple-Chocolate Death dessert. (She’s worried about her weight.) Don’t get me started.

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

You split the bill, then you compare receipts, because it’s not really fair if one couple stiffs the server. Inevitably, I have tipped 15 percent and am shamed upward into the 20 percent tip range. “Guess there’s not much money to be made in newspapers these days,’’ the Random Idiot I am dining with guffaws, as I meekly re-scribble my “gratuity’’ line.

No one likes to be told what to do, and I am no exception. I hate those nouveau meal tabs where they explain how much 20 percent, then 25 percent of the bill would amount to. I’m good at math, thanks. I’ve never booked passage on a cruise liner, and now I have an additional reason not to: They tack “auto-gratuities’’ onto your tab. Then they give you a bacterial infection in the upper digestive tract. Don’t get me started.

I rarely tip hotel maids, although I should, and I probably should have tipped the curbside check-in guy who helped me out at the airport on Monday. But at least I feel guilty about it. Unlike Steve Buscemi, in the famous tipping scene from the movie “Reservoir Dogs’’:

Buscemi: “Tipping is for the birds as far as I’m concerned. They’re just doing their jobs.’’


Fellow lowlife: “Jesus Christ, these ladies are starving to death. They’re making minimum wage.’’

Buscemi: “[Unprintable.]’’

I definitely tip barbers, but I never know what to do in those restaurants where they give you a number on a metal stand to place on your table, and then serve you later. Is that a tippable event? How come no one tips ushers in real theaters anymore? Is it because they don’t ush? I always tip at Starbucks, even in Manhattan, where they’ve taken to hiding the tip jar out of grab ’n’ go range. Twice I’ve complained to Panera managers about the company’s no-tipping policy. Both times the bosses looked at me as if I had two heads.

What does the world say? Meaning, what do my Facebook friends say? By and large, they think I’m a relic of a bygone era and should accustom myself to tipping 20 percent. One friend lives in Europe, where tacking a euro or even some pocket change onto a bill earns a warm smile. That’s because service charges, to say nothing of the continent’s many arcane turnover taxes - how else to finance retirement at age 50? - are baked into every tab. I have no problem with that, just as I have no problem with restaurants’ automatic service charges for parties of six or more. I am nothing if not inconsistent.

For the final word on tipping, I turned to Daniel Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, and founding member of the Center for Advanced Hindsight. I last spoke with Ariely in 2007, and I still remember his insistence that Apple had left money on the table by underpricing iTunes songs at 99 cents each. I thought he was wrong, although Apple did rejigger its iTunes pricing shortly afterward, in part to capture more revenue for popular songs.


Ariely and Buscemi have something in common: “I never like tipping,’’ Ariely said. “A person should get paid, and they should get paid for a job well done. Restaurants should just increase the prices and pay people reasonable wages. But that is not the world we live in. We live in a world that has unclear service charges somewhere between 15 and 20 percent.’’

Addressing my feelings of gratuity-ous shame and self-loathing, Ariely pulled an arrow from the behavioral psychology quiver: “My advice is that if you start paying 20 percent tips just for the next month or two. You will get used to it, and you will feel much less troubled parting with the money. I’m not sure you want this outcome, but that would be the best for you. You will be much more comfortable.’’

Or else I’ll move to Europe. Don’t get me started.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is