This isn’t about whether to give 15 or 20 percent. Tip workers sound off on customers, the psychology of tipping, getting stiffed and their best tipping pointers.
Thu, Mar 18, 2010 (midnight)
Illustration: Joseph Bergin III
Glen doesn’t view serving as a job, he views it as a profession. He’s nearly 60, and he’s been waiting tables most his life. He works at a restaurant at Town Square, but he asked me not to say which one because he doesn’t want to get fired. He also asked me to make up a fake name for him, so I picked Glen.
Glen, you see, isn’t supposed to be discussing tips with customers, let alone with journalists.
“See those four over there?” he said.
I peered over my shoulder and saw four older, well-to-do diners finishing their entrees. Two men, two women, a dozen stuffed shopping bags surrounding their table.
“I can tell you right now, they’re going to leave me 10 percent. Now, a lot of servers would take that as an insult, but I don’t. I understand that it’s a cultural thing. Those four are English, and over there, 10 percent is standard.”
“How often do you get stiffed?” I asked.
“All the time,” Glen replied. “But again, it’s usually by foreigners, by Orientals. They’re not acclimatized to our tip system. In their countries, the tip is built into the check. Of course, I’m not allowed to explain to them that over here it isn’t.”
Every place has its own tipping customs. For instance, in a Vegas casino, you’re encouraged to tip your dealer. But in a Tasmanian casino, if you tip your dealer, you might find yourself in jail. Over there it’s considered bribery.
“I don’t want to get too specific,” Glen went on, “but even over here, there are certain groups of people who don’t tip as much as they should. I’m not talking about foreigners now; I’m talking about people who know better. Or, at least, people who should know better.”
He left me the check; I left him 20 percent.
Like Glen, a lot of Las Vegans make the bulk of their income from tips. And when these food servers, cocktail waitresses, bottle attendants, bartenders, dealers, bellmen, cab drivers, casino go-go dancers and strippers get together, they discuss tips the way the rest of us discuss the weather. But, as Glen pointed out, they’re not allowed to talk about tips with the rest of us, so we never hear these conversations.
John at the bar is a friend of mine. He doesn’t get me my drinks for free, but he is quick with a joke—and I’m confident that if I smoked, he’d be quick with a light, too. He’s almost 40, and for the last four years he’s worked at a bar in a casino on the Strip. I promised him I wouldn’t reveal which one.
When the economy turned south two years ago, his tips followed.
“Sometimes, if I’m working the walk-up daiquiri bar, I’ll get two customers per hour. And at the walk-up bars, people don’t always tip. So when it gets that slow, I’ll go to the manager and say, ‘Do you really need me here?’ See, because of tip compliance, I’m losing money at that point.”
John explained tip compliance:
“The IRS understands that I make tips, so I get taxed on them. But they don’t track my individual tips; they set a per-hour fee. So if I’m not getting customers, I still have to pay taxes on the tips I’m not making.”
The state of Nevada requires employers to pay bartenders minimum wage, so that’s what they do—usually not a dime more. By comparison, most states allow employers to pay tipped employees far less than minimum wage. Either way, if a bartender isn’t getting good tips, he isn’t living the good life or anything close to it.
So begins the hustle.
“The No. 1 unethical thing I see,” John told me, “is over-pouring—making drinks that are too stiff. When you do that, you’re cheating the company you work for. You’re stealing from them. Same thing with giving customers extra shots—throwing ’em in and not ringing ’em up. I see that all the time. The customers obviously never say anything to management, and they usually leave a bigger tip.”
John says that he never over-pours, but he does admit to doing other things for extra cash:
“Every now and then, somebody will offer me money to do something silly. That’s the kind of place I work. And as long as it’s not a health-code violation, I’ll do it. Whip off my top off for 50 bucks? Sure. Pretend that I’m doing something nasty? Sure.”
“Don’t you feel demeaned when you’re doing that stuff?” I asked.
“Mildly, but that’s my job. Bartenders work to make people happy, and people pay us for it. So it’s not just me, personally; in a sense, all bartenders are whores.”
That’s a novel line, but not a novel observation; John isn’t the first one to compare service industry workers to sex workers. In the book On The Make: The Hustle of Urban Nightlife, University of Pennsylvania sociology professor David Grazian writes, “dining service is surprising similar to lap dancing, insofar as both require the worker to quickly yet accurately predict what kind of experience their client desires, and immediately respond in an appropriate manner.”
And when you think about it, it’s not just servers and bartender who make money by attempting to give their customers the kind of experience they’re after; it’s all workers.
In that sense, we’re all whores.
Sonia is a dancer—a trained dancer. She’s been in shows on and off the Strip, and she currently works as a casino go-go dancer. She works behind the blackjack tables, alongside the pit bosses.
“How’s business?” I asked.
“This one guy—a regular, a high roller—tipped us $6,000 in the past two months. We all get so excited when he comes in, and he really likes us, too. But recently, some girls got in trouble for hanging out with him at the table. To me that’s crossing the line; that’s going into stripper territory. And it makes me wonder what the guy thinks about us.”
“You mean, what he thinks about the nature of your relationship?”
“Exactly. Why is he giving us so much money, you know?”
To me and to Sonia, it’s obvious that the dancers’ relationship with the high roller is purely business. And I’d bet the high roller realizes this, too … but I wouldn’t bet my life on it. A lot of patrons (particularly men) delude themselves into believing that their servers (particularly female ones) are their friends. According to Grazian, “[Customers] take pleasure in what they interpret to be the authenticity of their encounters with service staff, particularly when they are of a desirably intimate or sexualized nature.” And when customers “take this pleasure,” they tip more. Any stripper will tell you that the guys who believe their strip-club interactions are authentic are the ones who tip the most.
Assuming the high roller doesn’t come in, how much can Sonia make in tips at that gig?”
“It’s really hit or miss. Depends on the night. Some nights I’ll walk away with no tips; some nights I’ll get up to $300, $350. What happens is, as soon as the first person calls me over and gives me a tip, the other gamblers get the idea that it’s okay to tip the go-go dancer, and then they all start calling me over and giving me tips. Unlike strippers, I’m not allowed to have dollar bills hanging out of my underwear, so people don’t know to tip me. I think I’m going to ask my friends to start coming by and giving me fake tips, just to get the ball rolling.”
The trick is letting customers know they can tip you without explicitly saying it. Sonia figured this out after a few months, but not from her go-go gig. When she’s not dancing, she dresses up in a costume—I promised her I wouldn’t say what kind—and walks around the casino, taking pictures with tourists. She’s not supposed to take tips, but she does. Everybody does.
“I figured out this trick that boosted my tips like a hundred percent,” she told me. “As we see somebody coming up, I’ll give a dollar to my friend, as if I’d just gotten it but don’t have a pocket to hold it. Or we’ll act like we’re divvying up a tip from the last group tourists. We do this even if nobody has tipped us. And then, when somebody new sees us, they see the money in our hands, and they think I guess I should give a tip, too. I guess that’s what people do.”
It’s all about expectations. If a guy thinks you’re expecting a big tip from him, he’s more likely to give you one. At least, that’s what my friend Sandi told me.
Sandi is stripper and a psychology student, and she applies what she learned in class to her work:
“When I first approach a guy, I’ll say, ‘I can tell you’re a high roller,’ regardless of how well he’s dressed. Maybe I’ll hold his watch and say, ‘This is a such a nice watch. I can tell it cost a lot.’ So then, when it comes time for him to give me a tip, he thinks that I think that he’s rich, and he doesn’t want to burst my bubble and admit that he’s not, so he gives me a big tip to keep up the misperception he thinks I have. It’s not about what he thinks of himself; it’s about what he thinks I think about him.”
If a guy doesn’t object when Sandi tells him that he’s high roller, it’s as if he’s confirming her assertion. And the longer he goes without objecting, the stronger his implicit confirmation becomes. So when it comes time to leave a tip, he thinks to himself, I led her on. I led her to believe I’m rich, so at this point it’d be wrong of me to not to give her a big tip.
But that’s not her No. 1 trick.
“No. 1 is neuro-linguistic programming—subliminal messages.”
How does that work?
“If a guy tells me that he’s flying home tomorrow, I’ll say, “Let me give you a big tip about the Vegas airport.’ That phrase—‘Let me give you a big tip about’—I find a way to work it into our conversation a couple times, no matter what we’re talking about. And it stays in the guy’s head to the end, even though he doesn’t know why it’s in his head.”
Monika is a cocktail waitress. She’s served drinks for eight years, on and off the Strip. Right now she works off the Strip, and she says tips are good. She attributes this to her big smile and big personality. I’ve seen her work a few times, and I agree.
“It’s not like most servers are happy to be at work,” Monika admits. “We’re like anybody else in that respect, but we have to seem happier. The girls who get the biggest tips are the ones who come across as genuinely liking people.”
“Can you tell if you’re going to get a big tip ahead of time?”
“No, but I know when somebody is going to give me a bad tip. They mumble, they don’t make eye contact. Going into it, they know they’re not going to give a good tip, so they feel uncomfortable in their own skin, is what it is.”
“And what do you think of these people who leave really small tips or no tips?”
“What goes around comes around.”
That sounds ominous.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“If people do the right thing, nothing bad is going to happen. If you do the right thing, people aren’t going to mess with you. But if you think you’re going to screw the waitress, she’ll screw you over in ways you don’t want to imagine.”
Monika was right: I didn’t want to imagine. But I had to ask:
“How can they screw with me?”
“Back when I worked on the Strip, I saw this a lot: A customer would get drunk, give his credit card, and then forget to take his customer copy. So the server would just change the amount on the merchant slip. There’s all kinds of ways you can alter a slip: You can change numbers, you can add a number, or you can just print out new set of slips and forge the signature. The customer isn’t going to remember how much he left, and if he does, he didn’t keep the customer copy, so what’s he gonna do about it?”
Note to self: Always keep the customer copy.
“Do you think servers who do that are unethical?” I asked.
“Let’s just say, I understand why they’re doing what they’re doing.”
In the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs, Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi’s character) defends his no-tipping policy like this:
“I don’t tip because society says I have to. I’ll tip if somebody really deserves a tip. If somebody really puts forward the effort, I’ll give them something extra, but this tipping automatically is for the birds. As far as I’m concerned, they’re just doing their job.”
When Mr. White (played by Harvey Keitel) brings up the tip-compliance issue, Mr. Pink responds thusly:
“Hey, I’m very sorry that the government taxes their tips. That’s fucked up. But that ain’t my fault. It would appear that waitresses are just one of the many groups the government fucks in the ass on a regular basis. You show me a paper that says the government shouldn’t do that, I’ll sign it. Put it to a vote, I’ll vote for it. But what I won’t do is play ball.”
You don’t hear many people echoing that sentiment. But the question is: Do people think it? Before you say no, keep in mind servers get stiffed every day, and the ones doing the stiffing must have some justification for their action. Ignorance on the part of those visiting the country can only explain so many of the bad tips servers receive.
Tipping your server is undoubtedly the “right” thing to do. Assuming your server did her job, you’d be wrong to stiff her. But how wrong would you be? And just where does the moral obligation to leave a tip come from? That’s what I asked UNLV ethical theory professor David Forman.
“As soon as you give your order to the waiter, there’s an implicit agreement that there’ll be a tip at the end. If you don’t like that agreement, then you shouldn’t be in a restaurant—at least not in a place, like the U.S., where a tip is expected.”
But what if you’re a conscientious objector, like Mr. Pink? What if you disagree with the implicit-agreement theory and don’t want to further it with your participation?
“That’s still no excuse for not tipping. If there were no tipping, the wait staff would be paid more. and this would be reflected in the price on the bill. But if you don’t tip, then you’re benefiting from the institution of tipping without contributing yourself. So you’re not only stiffing the wait staff; you’re cheating all the tippers.”
Forman was arguing, essentially, that when it comes to tipping, you can’t be a conscientious objector, only a de facto thief.
And what do we do with thieves? We punish them. So maybe Monika’s former coworkers—the ones who altered the slips—weren’t hustlers, after all; maybe they were just vigilantes.
A few months back, I went to local bar bar and ordered Dragonberry lemonade. The drink cost five bucks, and I handed the bartender $10. She handed me back $5, and I handed the bill right back to her to ask for change (so I could tip her a dollar). But before I could get the words out, she snatched the five from my hand, stuffed it into her tank top, said, “Thanks, dear!” and walked to the far end of the bar.
At first, I let it slide. After all, I didn’t want to shout across the bar, “Come back, miss! I didn’t mean to tip you that much!”
But then I realized I was being hustled. I realized that the bartender knew I didn’t mean to tip her the full five bucks. I realized that she assumed that I would never embarrass myself by asking for my money back.
She was wrong.
I got off my stool, walked to the far end of the bar, flagged her down and said, “I wasn’t offering you the five as a tip. I was asking for change, dear.”
I ended up tipping her a dollar for the performance. Still, I was still pissed.
But after talking with Glen, John, Sonia, and Monika, I’m a little less pissed. I don’t forgive the bartender entirely, but I appreciate where she was coming from.