Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

The Tip: An Award, but Whom Is It Meant For?

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

The Tip: An Award, but Whom Is It Meant For?

Article excerpt

NEW YORK -- Many uncertainties surround the dining experience, but one thing is sure. At the end of the meal, the diner, barring a near nuclear catastrophe, will leave a tip. Last year, American diners left an estimated $12 billion on the table, at an average of 16.7 percent of the total bill. In Manhattan, the standard tip is closer to 20 percent at a good restaurant. Regardless of the amount, the gesture may well be mass delusion.

In theory, a tip is a reward for good service. But many restaurants pool tips -- putting them all into one pot and evenly dividing them at the end of the night -- which means that the reward intended for a particular server is shared among many. Under these circumstances, a tip is a little like a declaration of love delivered over a public address system.

And in any case, the message may say more about the sender than the receiver. A tip, social scientists seem to be discovering, has less to do with the diner's opinion of the service than it has with his opinion of himself, his need for approval or his desire to please the waiter. The tip, in other words, is a puzzle. No one quite knows why diners tip in the first place, or whether tipping serves any rational economic purpose. It's not at all clear how the custom started, for that matter. Even the word itself is of obscure origin. The economic argument for tipping is that it gives restaurants extra managers at no cost. Because a restaurant cannot possibly monitor its staff as efficiently and accurately as the people being served, this function has been delegated to diners. Acting as employers, they assess the performance of the service staff and set their salary accordingly. The prospect of a good tip motivates the staff to provide good service in the present, and the diner who leaves a generous tip helps ensure good service in the future. But tipping is not only, or even primarily, an economic transaction. It is also a social event, and as researchers have discovered, a very complex one, at times bordering on the perverse. Michael Lynn, an associate professor of consumer behavior at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, has been studying tipping since 1980, and although he readily admits that many mysteries remain, one thing is fairly clear: The quality of service has very little to do with the size of the tip. "Bill size allows me to explain 70 percent of the variability in tip amount," he said. "Less than 2 percent of the variability can be explained by how the diner rates the service." Lynn and others have found that the social norm of tipping dictates that a more or less predictable tip will be left, depending on the size of the bill. "The primary motivation for tipping is social approval," Lynn said. "It's expected." The peculiarities of the diner-server relationship also confound the economic model. Researchers have found that in most cases, diners do not feel that they are judging the waiter, but that the waiter is judging them. They tip to please. Theoretically, the tip is a weapon, but as a social scientist named Leo Crespi found when he studied tipping in the 1940s, "most people do not have the requisite nerve." This may be an American problem. Some researchers have theorized that the tip is a way to defuse the anxiety associated with the unequal server-diner relationship, and a way of fending off envy and ill will. In a country dedicated to the principle of social equality, this anxiety takes an acute form. …

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