I blog by day and wait tables in a New York City restaurant by night. I'm excited to bring you Served, dispatches from the front of the house. Enjoy!

20080616-servedbug.jpgWhy is tipping such a touchy subject? Last week I shared a story about asking a group who had left a measly tip if everything was OK. It was the first and only time I have approached diners about a tip during my two years waiting tables. They told me they had made a mistake and left more cash.

Serious Eaters responded with a record 70-some comments, many of which were harshly disapproving. The incident itself felt unremarkable, yet still worth sharing—it was a sticky, uncomfortable situation, and I felt proud having handled it smoothly. The consensus seemed to be that I was not so smooth at all. In fact, I was way out of line.

I learned that many believe a server should never address a customer about a tip: “It’s just RUDE for a waiter to run back and question the tip amount or demand more, no matter how nicely you do it,” mirchi commented. Others chimed in to agree.

A few people declared that they would never return to my restaurant if they were in my guests’ shoes. That’s fine by me. No restaurant likes to host bad tippers. The vast majority of people do tip reasonably. It is a societal standard most of the population understands and abides by. If you are not one of those people, no waiter anywhere will want to wait on you. Even if you are exceedingly nice.

The Way it Works

Waiting tables is a job, not a hobby. In the U.S., we waiters make the bulk of our money from our tips. If diners spend a lot of money, tip decently, and if our tables flip, we have a lucrative night and a lucrative job. If not, we suffer. There will be good nights and bad nights (and good months and bad months), and we get this.

Some tables don’t want to break the bank; they deserve and get good service too. It’s not all about the bottom line. Cultivating great regulars is important. And it’s our job to treat everyone with respect and hospitality.

It’s your job to tip graciously at the end of your meal, unless service is included, or you're at a take-out joint, etc. Graciously might mean 15 percent to some people, and 22 percent to others.

The system, many agree, is flawed. In France, gratuity is already included on your check as prescribed by law. In Italy, tips are not expected. We’re not in France or Italy, though, and even French and Italians should understand that and behave accordingly. If you think that restaurants, not their customers, should pay their employees, you are not alone. Maybe you should open a restaurant where things work differently. But please, don’t take it out on your poor waiter!

Below the Surface

I don’t think people are so stirred up by the difference between 18 and 20 percent, though. Something about tipping touches a really sensitive spot.

“It’s because Americans hate to talk about class and money,” T., our fromager, theorized. Ding, ding. I think she nailed it.

Why would your server addressing your tip, in a polite way, in an extreme situation, set off such an alarm? Why would it feel like an affront when conducted politely and discreetly? And such an affront that you never wanted to return to the restaurant! To me, it seems like an extreme reaction to a minor event.

But serve comes from the same route as servant, and as servitude, which all come from servus, the word for slave. For a server to confront a guest, and about money of all things, is to transgress a deep unspoken boundary. It stirs up those two hush-hush, hot-button subjects: class and money.

Servers should collect their tips gratefully and silently. It is about serving and being served. The power lies, or should lie, in the hands of the person in the latter position. To imply otherwise is to transgress an unspoken rule. Eating out is one of the few situations Americans face with such a clear, and yet still confusing, power dynamic. Its very existence breeds turmoil.

Hence the plea for a manager to act as a mediator. I understand that it would be awkward and probably ineffective to speak to a waiter about a problem you had with them, especially if it was something personal (You rushed us! You belittled us when we asked that question about cheese!). At that time, at my little restaurant, there was no manager to ask to play middleman between myself and my guests. So I took the task upon myself.

Even if tipping—and tipping a certain amount—is theoretically optional, it is culturally and institutionally mandated. If you have a problem with the service you have (or have not) received, please speak up. How can the problem get fixed if the restaurant does not know about it? To refuse to address something and then to tip poorly in response is passive aggressive and futile. I can’t make anything better if I don’t realize that there is something wrong in the first place.

It's my job to make it better, and I sincerely want to do just that.

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