Miss Conduct

The etiquette of critiquing a waiter

Are low tips and notes on what went wrong acceptable for waiters who provide bad service?

When my mother is unsatisfied with a waiter, she often writes a short message on the back of the bill, briefly enumerating whatever issues she had with the service. I tell her this is rude and unnecessary — leaving a small tip already sends a message. She says it’s constructive criticism that will help the waiter improve in the future. What do you think?

M.S. / Lexington

Let’s talk about attribution.

“Attribution” is psychologists’ lingo for why we think people do what they do. I get a lot of questions from people asking me to help them accurately attribute another person’s behavior. Dear Miss Conduct, does my very friendly classmate like me romantically or does he only want my study help? Does my mother-in-law hate me or is it a cultural difference? Was my co-worker’s compliment sincere or a passive-aggressive insult?


We generally seek to attribute behavior in a way that protects our self-image. We make excuses for ourselves. (You’re talking on your cellphone in public because you’re rude, but I’m taking a very important call!) And — back to your question — we find ways to discount other people’s criticism of us.

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Now think about that, and also about the fact that many people are rotten tippers because of flaws in their character, not the service they receive. See where this logic takes you? There is not even a vanishing chance that a server will interpret a low tip as a legitimate critique. Your mother will be judged as a cheapskate, briefly cursed, and banished from consciousness.

In the unlikely event that a server does correctly interpret the tiny tip as a reprimand, it’s still not going to improve that server’s performance. Welcome to psychological concept No. 2: The Dunning-Kruger effect. People who are incompetent tend not to recognize their own incompetence and often believe that they are performing better than average. If incompetent servers knew how to get better without specific feedback, they’d already be better.

So your mother is right about leaving the note. However, she ought to leave a decent tip as well.

But doesn’t tipping bad servers reward bad behavior? Slow your roll, B.F. Skinner. We’re not rats in a maze responding to rewards and punishments. Remember, we attribute the behavior of others, usually in the most self-burnishing way. A low tip? That customer has no manners! A low tip accompanied by a critique? That customer only wants to come up with a justification for stiffing me! A good tip and a critique? Now, that might get some attention.


Psychologizing aside, there is also the incontrovertible fact that not tipping servers adequately is a cheap and lousy thing to do, except in the most extreme — talk-to-the-manager extreme — cases. Servers make sub-minimum wage and may even be taxed on an estimated tip income whether or not their earnings reach that amount. So don’t use your tipping power to punish servers. And don’t delude yourself into thinking that you’re giving them some kind of lesson by undertipping. People who are failing at kindness don’t have the moral high ground to instruct people who are failing at flatware.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.

IS YOUR SERVER (OR YOUR MOTHER) GIVING YOU INDIGESTION? Send your questions to Miss Conduct at