Fast times for loose change

Looking back, I suppose it was a callow act.

Just out of college and nursing an entry-level paycheck, I had decided to splurge on a hot bowl of chili on a cold Boston night. So I ducked into a grill.

Good chili, once it arrived. But the service was straight out of a Saturday Night Live skit: A long wait, a forgotten beverage, a surly server, and an error on the bill (in the restaurant's favor, naturally).

So I paid for the food and I left a tip. A whole list of tips, actually, in smudged blue ink on a napkin. I think one of them read: "Think of your customer as a human."

My then-girlfriend thought that was funny. But who knows, maybe there were special circumstances: a wait-staff shortage or a personal crisis. Today I'd just leave "small coin" and never return.

Today's exploding service sector gives us ever more reasons to dish out gratuities. It also adds urgency to old questions: Are tips all about making a statement? Or are they really wages owed to service workers by patrons - and payable at very specific rates?

Today's lead story is one part history and one part how-to. Don't miss the useful chart on page 15.

Some esoteric questions about tipping that we came across but just couldn't squeeze in:

* How much are we meant to plunk into those Styrofoam cups at Dunkin' Donuts on a tab of, say, $1.50? (No, that's not a "take a penny, leave a penny" deal.)

* Is there any truth to the odd new survey that says servers who squat by the table - taking orders eye to eye - get bigger tips?

* And what's with Icelanders? They don't tip, ever, says a recent item in The Economist magazine.

Write in with any thoughts. We place real value on your input. Just don't ask us for 20 percent.

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(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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