Of all the socially reinforced standards of behavior to which we must adhere, tipping must be the most, well, quietly awkward.
There's often an internal debate: was the service that good? Hell, not really. But I don't want to look cheap. Then again, I gotta pay the cell phone bill...On top of this, so many people spent time in the service industry there's always someone in your group who waited tables and "knows what it's like."
Translation: "I'm making you feel guilty for anything under 20 percent."
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It's refreshing to know that these concerns are shared by others. Frank Bruni at Diner's Journal goes right to the heart of the matter, directly addressing the system of "voluntary" payments for services rendered. In the end, he decides it's better than having server salaries added to the cost of drinks and appetizers. Bruni doesn't give much thought to alternate models, at least not in his post.
If you think about it, your friend who used to wait tables has a point. Diners are collectively responsible for making sure their servers can pay rent. One might argue this should be the role of employers. Instead of adding to the cost of menu items, restaurants might try adding a minimum service fee to the bill, with a chance for diners to voluntarily tack on what they feel is correct. The collected fees could still go straight to the server at the end of the night. Of course, this seems ready-made for corruption.
Maybe servers could be given a commission based on what menu items they move. Oh, but commissions are taxed at a higher rate, aren't they? And "some" professional servers claim only a portion of their cash tips for government purposes.
In the end, maybe Bruni's right: Any system might just be trading one set of problems for another.