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We need to rethink our tipping habits

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David Sax: When my parents were younger, they took a trip to New York City and Katz’s delicatessen.

TESS VIGELAND: If we wanted more letters from you, we couldn’t think of a better topic than tipping. Here’s commentator David Sax.

Sax: As they placed their orders along the counter, my mother saw a sign right next to a cup overflowing with dollar bills that said “Do Not Tip the Countermen.” When she got to the table, she noticed her pastrami sandwich was half the size of my father’s. “Why is your sandwich so much bigger?” she asked him. “Because I tipped.”

Tipping is an awkward, opaque, gray area of our economy, and it’s time to rethink it. Though we couch it in the notion that we are leaving a monetary symbol of heartfelt thanks, we are simply paying someone’s salary because their employer will not or cannot. Somehow, it’s become our responsibility to directly pay the disparity between their income and their financial needs.

Then there’s the constant social pressure to tip more, more, more — disconnected from the quality of the service. Used to be, a 15 percent tip on top of the pre-tax total of a meal was standard for competent service. This has been my baseline for nearly a decade. But I’ve lately been told that 20 percent is the new baseline, that 15 percent is for cheapskates and that I should really give 25 percent if I’m happy with the service. That’s one quarter of the price of my meal… Oh, and now it’s expected to be on top of tax.

How soon until 30 percent is the new benchmark, and for truly great service, I should really cough up half the cost of my meal? If these escalating tips translated into better service, maybe I wouldn’t be so alarmed. Every meal, haircut and taxi ride ought to be better than the last.

But they’re not. Even when the waiter forgets our order, the barber butchers our bangs and the cab driver hits several cats, we still tip at least the minimum. Withholding a tip is unacceptable, and only the worst penny pinchers do so. Tipping either has to be mandatory or it isn’t, but don’t pretend as though we have a choice, when we really don’t.

Perhaps it’s time that America took example from Japan, Europe and most other nations where gratuity and service are built into the price of the bill. We already do it for parties of six or more, so why not apply it to everyone? If 20 percent is the accepted standard for meals, then add 20 percent to my bill and let’s put it out in the open. Why not a penalty system? We’ll start off with 20 percent and if the waiter spills wine on you, take off 2 percent, if he spills hot oil, 10 percent. And if the service is truly exceptional, I’ll still leave a little something extra to say thanks.

Vigeland: David Sax is a writer living in New York. His new book is titled “Save the Deli.” OK bring it on, light our inbox on fire.

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