At Boston's Union Oyster House, patrons sit in mahogany booths dining on clam chowder and fresh scrod as waitresses scurry past.
But as meals end and checks arrive, confusion grows. How much should they leave on the table?
"You'll have people tipping 15 percent half the time and 20 percent the other half ... then in between you'll get nothing," says Susan Gray, who has worked 15 years at the Oyster House.
Americans face the question of how much to tip almost every day, whether they're leaving restaurants, stepping out of cabs, or opening their doors to a Web grocery deliverer.
As a busy populace farms out more and more tasks, a wide range of services have, not surprisingly, stepped in and stuck out their collective hand. More than 35 professions expect tips, and the practice has become a $28 billion industry.
Etiquette experts say a 15 percent gratuity is still the norm in most cities, regardless of whether you're paying for a buzz cut or an anchovy pizza.
But with consumers spending freely in today's booming economy, the average tip has hit 20 percent for some high-end services and could eventually filter into others. Any amount below 20 percent in large cities like New York or Los Angeles can draw scornful looks from service people, regardless of whether you dine at Tavern on the Green or somewhere less elegant.
The confusion over tipping has been amplified by the growing range of Web-delivery services, many of which have conflicting policies. Some, like Peapod, an online grocery, allow tips (usually 15 to 17 percent). Others, such as Urbanfetch, a cyber Wal-Mart of sorts, forbid it. Yet some customers override those policies because of the guilt they feel when deliverers haul groceries - even air conditioners or CD players - right to their door in less than an hour.
Better service, bigger bucks
As Americans come to expect and demand speedy service, says Karen Cure, editorial director at Fodor's travel publications, the service industry is facing increased pressure to rev up quality. Companies that do so are more likely to have their employees rewarded with higher tips. Even now, a 30 percent tip from a highly satisfied customer is not unheard of.
"In the next 10 years, 20 or 22 percent will be the norm," says Michael Lynn, an associate professor of consumer behavior at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration in New York. "But ultimately it wouldn't surprise me if it went higher, if people started tipping 30 percent."
Mr. Lynn says another key reason why tips will rise is Americans' competitive nature. "If everyone is giving 15 percent and I want to show off or express generosity and gratitude, then I have to give a little more. Everyone is doing well now, so it creates a pressure to go higher."
But many consumers probably won't enjoy doing it. A recent survey shows that 40 percent of Americans "loathe" tipping, though the gesture is still widely seen as a status symbol. People say the size of a gratuity mostly depends on bill size, but they feel good about rewarding top service and "sharing the wealth" with workers who, ostensibly, don't earn that much, says Richard Laermer of New York, who is writing a book on business trends.
For Gil Smith that means occasionally tossing out $100 extra on a lunch bill. "I don't care about money as much as I should," says Mr. Smith, a student living in Boston who asked that his real name not be used.
Eugene "Gino" Bly is familiar with such pleasant surprises. He's polished thousands of shoes over 18 years and recalls getting $100 tips on $3 shines from a handful of businessmen.
"My main objective is to make them feel good about themselves," he says, sitting on a busy Boston street corner. "They [leave with] a smile on their face and a shine on their shoes." Even regular customers tip him about 50 percent per shoeshine, he says with a grin.
But most people say the normal deviation for awarding great service or acknowledging a poor experience is within 5 to 10 percent of 15 percent.
For bell hops and skycaps the span of $1 to $3 a bag is acceptable. And tip cups at ice cream parlors and newsstands generally attract everything from spare change to $1 bills.
Business people tend to be the most generous, often because their company foots the bill when they travel or dine out, workers say. Men give more than women, say experts. And Americans, often said to be the world's best tippers, are far more openhanded than Europeans, who, by custom, tip meagerly.
No 'stiffing' allowed
Regardless of tip size, one point etiquette experts agree upon: not leaving a tip is a no-no, regardless of the level of service. They point out that gratuities should be considered as part of the cost for service, and many workers depend on tips for 40 to 70 percent of their income.
"These people are trying to make a living," says Lydia Ramsey, a Georgia-based columnist known as "Lady Etiquette." "There should be a communication.... So that they have the opportunity to correct whatever [the problem] is."
Eddie Melucci, a Delta Airlines skycap who makes $200 a day in tips working curbside at Boston's Logan Airport, knows what it's like to get "stiffed." He once spent 30 minutes searching for woman's bag after it was put on an airport conveyor belt. When Mr. Melucci found the luggage, the woman decided she didn't need it, and didn't give him a dime.
The case for 'building in' service fees
Such injustices and inconsistencies raise the ire of Judith Martin, the syndicated "Miss Manners" columnist. She opposes the gratuity system entirely and has said she "would like it replaced with a European method of a built-in service charge."
Ms. Martin points out that businesses use tipping policies to save on payroll costs, and cash gratuities make it easy for service people to avoid paying taxes. According to the IRS, of the more than $18 billion food and beverage workers received in tips last year, only about $8.3 billion was declared. (See charts, page 12.)
In addition, the American system fosters "unfair rewards" because not everyone who deserves a tip gets one. Experts agree certain professions, such as bus drivers or fast-food workers, are overlooked.
One method commonly used to counter this problem is tip cups. When customers pick up a cone at J.P. Licks, a Boston ice cream parlor, about three-fourths of customers toss leftover change into a plastic piggy bank. While such tips are widely considered acceptable, it translates into no more than $1 extra per hour for workers, says store manager Beth Frederico.
The proliferation of tip cups, however, raises concerns. "They are popping up in many places they shouldn't," says Fodor's Ms. Cure. When she passes a newsstand worker on her morning commutes she says she thinks: "Why are you supposed to tip him for selling papers and pieces of candy?"
Meanwhile, others who receive tips may not really deserve them, say some consumers, especially when the job requires only a few seconds' time.
"I won't tip a guy to hail a cab, it's not extra work, it's their job," says Scott Nilson, a marketing executive living in Boston. He adds that having to wait in line for five or 10 minutes at a hotel only to watch a doorman simply wave down a cab doesn't inspire him to tip either.
But for the vast majority of service workers, receiving a good gratuity is just as important as enjoying an expensive meal, says Ms. Ramsey. "A dollar here or a dollar there is not much for the person tipping, and it's a good reward for people in menial jobs," she says. "The porters, bell hops, waiter and waitresses are dependent on it for so much of their money."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society