Friday night topic: the unwritten rules of tipping

— 5:04 PM on April 11, 2014

When you think about it, giving extra money to folks who do certain jobs is kind of a weird tradition. Yet we practice it regularly. What's weirdest about tipping is that it seems to follow an unwritten set of conventions that we're largely supposed to know, apparently by osmosis.

Generally speaking, I'm happy to tip, and I fall mostly on the generous side. I usually give 20% of the check (and I round up to the nearest dollar) in restaurants, for instance. But there are places where the rules break down, and I find that absolutely befuddling.

One example: what to do about tipping in a buffet-style dining scenario. Do you really tip the same amount to a server who only refills your icewater once or twice? If that's the plan, then I'm willing enough to pay up, although it seems kind of odd. The trouble is that I honestly do not know the expected protocol. I've asked others around me about this scenario, but agreement or a clear sense of the correct answer seems elusive.

Another case: sometimes, when I'm attending trade show, a company will arrange transportation across town to a press event via a car service. A dude will show up to pick me up at a hotel and cart me across town. His fee is paid by the company who made the arrangements. Should I also tip, and if so, how much?

Again, no clue.

Heck, I don't even know what the fee is sometimes, so estimating a percentage of that would be rather difficult. At other times, I've caught a glimpse of the fee on a reservation email, and the tip is sometimes already included in the up-front costs. Is it always? I don't know, and I dunno when it is and isn't.

On top of that, I pay for nearly everything by card and am rarely carrying anything close to the correct change for a tip. I've joked recently that bums the homeless may have to start carrying smartphones with card readers, if digital payments become the norm.

In Europe, I was surprised to learn that many kinds of tipping practiced in the U.S. just aren't common. That can lead to situations where you've essentially insulted someone by handing them money. Which is great.

Do any of you find certain tipping scenarios similarly confusing? If so, which ones? Should we just abandon the practice altogether, or does tipping have its place? Also, if you have somehow picked up more of the rules of tipping than I have along the way, perhaps you can enlighten me on the scenarios above.


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