Masters, servants, and the game of holiday tipping

YOU write your cards. You buy your tree. You do your last-minute shopping - what other kind is there? And then, just when you're about to reward yourself by soaking in a hot tub, listening to your tape of Bruce Springsteen's ``Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,'' you remember in a panic the tips you still owe - and my, does the old bubble bath ever agitate! Christmas tipping can make you feel as helpless as a pocket calculator with no battery. The custom is well established without being well defined. The one point of consensus seems to be that you reward a server in a restaurant with 15 percent and up, depending on your sense of guilt or your need to be loved. But what, for instance, do you tip that endangered species, the garbage collector?

This is the Christmas '87 crisis for one suburban tipper, who found her garbage pail emptied with special 'elan last week. Neatly tucked under the edge of the cover was a business card with raised lettering, reading: ``Merry Christmas, Happy New Year - from the G-Men.''

Even if your pocket calculator is working, how do you figure 15 percent for a G-for-garbage man? Do you allow for the driver as well? And where do you leave your little greeting-and-gratuity - on top of a full garbage pail maybe?

Questions! Questions! That's what holiday tipping is all about. Not even Miss Manners has the answers, to say nothing of Emily Post, who dates back to the days when lords and ladies summoned their household staff for a few modest Christmas indulgences, with much curtseying and touching of the forelock in return.

Not anymore. Now the giver of tips is the one on the defensive. Another suburban tipper has received a slightly menacing note from a newspaper deliverer - the fellow in the new Volvo. ``I am having a small problem in receiving payments and Christmas tips,'' he begins, in a line that could be read by Robert De Niro as Al Capone. He goes on to hint that if his customers will take care of his ``small problem,'' their ``small problem'' of wet newspapers will also be ``rectified.''

Tipping has this way of turning into either a bribe on the part of the tipper, or a threat on the part of the cheaply tipped.

A Money magazine poll reveals the obvious. Uncertainty about holiday tipping divides the world into two classes: the overtippers, terrified of undertipping; and the undertippers, determined not to overtip. How else explain that holiday tips for doormen in New York range wildly from $10 to $100, according to the research? Or that a mail carrier in Chicago is subject to a spread from $5 to $25?

Even those on the receiving end are divided. Two acquaintances, former waitresses both, still argue about tipping, years after they quit. Ex-waitress A says that tips are a server's main course, so to speak, not just the dessert. Since the small salary is based on the assumption that tips will be generous, the customer has a moral responsibility to dig deep. On the other hand, ex-waitress B says she always worked for her tips, and she believes a tip should reflect the customer's satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the service.

Behind the uncertainty about whom to tip, and how much to tip, lies an uneasiness about the whole process, second only to the uneasiness about welfare.

The dispensing of tips puts everybody into a feudal pattern - one plays patron or serf.

White-collar workers get a holiday ``bonus,'' like their CEO. By contrast, to receive a holiday ``tip'' is to risk classification as a ``menial.''

Furthermore, the receiver of the tip is expected to say, ``Thank you'' - an improper requirement in a business relationship where one party is performing a contracted service for another.

Workers should be paid what their labor is worth in the marketplace without being forced to receive part of their wage as a ``favor.'' As the first step in reform, tips ought to be built into the bill, as in the European fashion - then they ought to disappear altogether, reaching the worker's pocket as money openly earned.

Neither a gift nor a wage, the tip places both the tipper and the tipped in a false position - an undemocratic position, one may argue, an un-American position.

Beginning with holiday tipping, we children of a supposedly classless society should be able to work out the financial equivalent to the ``gratuity,'' sparing ourselves the amateur theater of playing ``Lord and Lady Bountiful Meet the Peasants Under the Ivy'' - roles that we are profoundly not suited for.

A Wednesday and Friday column

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.