What's up with all those tip jars?

Tipping has spread to businesses, such as takeout restaurants, where the customer does all the work.

Am I alone in taking pointed notice of all the tip jars that have blossomed on business countertops? From delis to pizzerias, Chinese takeout joints to barber shops, the word has spread like wildfire: If you put out a tip jar, people will fill it.

Well, maybe they will, but I have yet to be shamed (if this is the right word) into casting my coin into the tip jar fountain. Perhaps it is the scientist in me, but I try to reason the situation out like this: I call in my order to the Chinese restaurant. I drive there to pick it up. I pay the menu price. Why on earth would I pay more than they are asking for their product? Doing so strikes me as positively un-American.

Tipping used to be confined to service-oriented occupations: waitresses, taxi drivers, doormen. Now it has spread to businesses where I seem to be doing most of the work. Just recently I was in a general store where I roamed the aisles, collected my goods, brought them to the counter, and even packed them myself. I paid the cashier $23.97 and then noticed a rather ostentatious pickle jar by the register. It was brimming with coins and paper money. On its face was written, in large red letters so as not to escape notice, "TIPS!" The addition of that exclamation point seemed to push the thing beyond a suggestion toward the realm of subtle demand.

Sometimes the tip jar bears an explanation or justification of the recipient's need for the extra cash, such as the annotation, "For college." And then there was this cryptic one I saw in a service station: "For unanticipated expenses." Hmm. Don't we all have these?

All this reminds me of a little incident with an Internet retailer. On the order form after I had added up the total for goods and shipping, was an additional charge of $1, for "immediate replacement of lost or damaged goods."

There was no way for me to decline or eliminate this fee, so I called them. The pleasant woman at the other end of the line explained that the fee was a bargain because it would ensure my satisfaction with my purchase.

"Ma'am," I calmly began, "if I am not satisfied with this purchase, I expect you to remedy the situation in any event."

She removed the $1 fee.

The moral of this tale is that these companies seem to assume that nobody – except for me! – will notice or care if an additional buck or two is appended to an order. Considering the large customer bases involved, this can add up to a lot of money. I think this is precisely what has spilled over into the ad hoc tipping jar phenomenon we're now experiencing. If the college student who works at the local taco stand puts out his or her jar and makes an extra $10, $20 or $30 a day, well, why not? It's not as if people have to cough up a tip.

At this point I'm willing to admit that maybe I'm being a curmudgeon about this – or even worse, a cheapskate. But although I don't contribute to these ubiquitous, beckoning Mason jars, I think there is an insidious effect on the young.

On a visit to a bakery with my son, I had just paid for my bagels when Anton nudged me and pointed to the tip jar. "Dad," he said, "aren't you going to tip them?"

I looked at the milk-faced student behind the cash register, who beamed at me. "Thank you," I told him, "and have a nice day."

This didn't end the conversation. In the car on the way home, Anton asked me how I would feel if I had a tip jar and nobody put any money in.

No one had ever asked me this before. As a teacher it had never occurred to me to put one of these jars on my desk. And so I decided to conduct an experiment. The next day, when I entered the classroom, I casually pulled a small jelly jar from my bag and placed it on my desk. On the front was a neat label, "Tips." I didn't do anything else to draw my students' attention to it and ignored the low mumble that the act incited.

At the end of the lecture, as the students filed out, I'll be darned if a few of them didn't throw their loose change into the jar. I gave it all back, of course, but their quiet gestures did lend me a small thrill, a sense that my teaching efforts were worth more than my salary alone.

Well, I still don't put money in tip jars, but I have put one of these jars in my son's room. Sometimes, when he does something positive or helpful without being told, I throw a couple of quarters in. He appreciates this and looks for opportunities to lend a hand wherever he can. I think that as long as we can keep this under control I will not have created unreasonable expectations. But mum's the word.

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