I work as a server. I have achieved a level of proficiency that may be termed "expert" within the Dreyfus Model. I'm good at waiting tables, and most days I enjoy it. However, after 11 years of restaurant experience, I am still startled when I receive an 11% tip from a table that did not exhibit any signs of dissatisfaction during the time we spent together. It violates my sense of fairness and decency and makes me kick things. It also makes me run through a mental checklist of the meal, questioning my service, my perceived level of rapport with the people at the table and missed clues that the whole thing was going to go pear-shaped when I see the credit card line. I used to get so full of righteous indignation about bad tips that I would rant about public-access cable shows about the wages of tipped employees in the state and flyers in parking lots about how to calculate 15 and 20% easily in your head.
Today, I had a table of four adults (clearly parents and a set of grandparents) and one 9 month old child. I'm often quite interactive with the kids at my table - I like hanging out with kids a lot when I'm not responsible for them. This baby was Cute, with all the adorable characteristics of that age - fat little fingers, quiet but smiley, huge rosy cheeks, content to sit in her highchair while the adults ate, happy to be on someone's lap, making eye contact and imitating facial expressions. There are few things more entertaining to me than trying to figure out what a 6-12 month old is thinking by watching their eyebrows. I digress (which may be foreshadowing for the piss-poor tip I got on this check).
Things that I think went right (ie, things that support my assumption that I would receive a 16-20% for the bill): Greeted table promptly, kept tea glasses refilled throughout meal, remembered to bring extra chili paste for Mr. Make It As Hot as Possible, acknowledged cuteness of child, was not flustered during service (last table of the shift, no other tables that I was dashing around to, splitting checks 5 ways on 4 credit cards and boxing up leftovers), eye contact with adults, pleasant interactions, ready with check presenter when older man reached for his wallet.
Possible reasons why this man left me $7 on $68:
- he is an asshole (again, not supported by my limited interactions with him)
- he never tips more than 10% (possible risk factor on this one - he was over 50 yo and white, which although certainly not causally linked, has been correlated in my experience with randomly shitty tipping behavior)
- he was angry that I was talking to the baby and wished I would have left the table so that they could dote on the kid without some stranger hanging out and showing off her impression of an octopus.
- he was not happy/comfortable with paying for these freeloader kids and not prepared to shell out $68 pre-gratuity. he didn't want to come to this fancyass highfaluting chinese joint anyway, he wanted to go to Bojangles.
- he thought that because we pulled two four-top tables together, they were considered a big party and gratuity is included.
- they were actually in a much greater hurry than I suspected and my take of them as "leisurely family lunch" was totally false.
- the fact that when I first approached the table, they had neither menus or silverware, commonly provided by the host staff when seating a table. this was a mystery to me, and I stated as much, then left to procure said items immediately. maybe there's more to this part of the story.
Part of the reason this kind of thing bothers me is that I will never never never know why this person chose to leave half the amount of money that I expected him to leave. (though, if pressed, I gotta go with the octopus imitation. come on, now. what was i thinking??) I can't ask, and oddly enough, my memory of faces is so poor that I wouldn't be able to pick him out of a crowd at Starbucks tomorrow even if I happened to have the balls to walk up and ask him why he stiffed me (which I know that I don't). I can't know if I did something akin to wiping my ass at the table and then mixing their sauce without knowing it, or if this is all about him, the way he always tips, the way his father tipped and his father before him. No, wait, his grandfather wouldn't have been eating out, unless he was a Rockefeller.
I also will never never never know if he was Non-compliant with American societal norms in restaurant tipping, or has a Knowledge Deficit related to confusion about automatic gratuity policies. What if he meant for me to have a 28% tip because he figured 18% was already in the tab? This one is good for snapping me out of Thinking Bad Thoughts about the dude, but doesn't really hold up to scrutiny, since all he had to do was look carefully at the bill and note the absence of a line that read "Gratuity Included: $15.23" or something.
Shit, maybe the guy can't do percentages in his head. Add it to the list.
The nice thing about being an expert in the field is that these tips are now the exception, not the norm and don't ruin my day the way they used to (when I was getting them all the time!). With all my gathered experience, I trotted off after cashing out and got myself a big ass cinnamon latte and forgot about it. (That Dharma and Greg episode is playing in my head right now - the one about Dharma's annual thought detox ritual when she says -Put it in a bubble. Let it float away - about 86 times in 20 minutes!)
Yep. Let it float away.
(edited to add: Move the decimal left one digit for 10%, then double that figure for 20%, or add half of that number to itself for 15%. Servers in my state earn $2.13 per hour in wages.)
(re-edited to add the link of one of old favorite blogs that i just remembered: Waiter Rant.)