The American custom of tipping is like a dance that neither party really wishes he were engaged in. On the one side, the server is trying to “suck up” to the customer — as one of my regular waitresses, who, I had previously thought, was one of the more genuine ones, rather vulgarly admitted. On the customer side is a mixture of guilt, wanting to be liked, generosity, wanting to conform to social expectations, envy and magnanimity, the proportions of each of these of course varying with each customer and situation. And on both sides are the idiotic plastered smiles that Americans substitute for genuine and authentic respect.
The custom on the continent is quite different. The server’s portion is built into the price, as is the tax. There are no little surprises at the end. If you wish to “round up” to add a little to the “tip,” you can, but it is by no means obligatory. I have not noticed that the service is lacking in any way because of this way of doing business. On the contrary, it is just as cheerful, more attentive to the business at hand, and less obtrusive than the American way. No pressure to “churn and burn” is exerted; if you wish to occupy your table for the evening, that is your prerogative.
Given that we are stuck with the American system, I propose supplementing it with the “tip-o-meter.” This would allow both customer and server to “get to the point” in an objective, that is, publicly-ascertainable fashion, removing all the silly mincing and prancing and grinning and ungenuine small-talk.
The way it works is this. Picture one of those game clocks, which is an assembly with two clocks and two buttons used by chess players. When a player moves, he whacks his button, and instantly his clock stops ticking and the other player’s clock resumes counting down. If one clock runs out of time before a checkmate occurs, that player loses on time.
The difference with the tip-o-meter is that there is only one “clock,” though there will still be two buttons. The “game” begins by agreeing with the waitress what a reasonable tip would be if all is in order. This is certainly doable, as most people know approximately what they plan to spend for a meal and, if they are honest with themselves, what an appropriate “tip” should be. The agreed-upon sum is “set” into the clock. Thereafter, any time something is amiss — be it a water glass that needs refilling, a need for a missing condiment, a need to order something more, whatever — the customer pushes his button and the tip-o-meter begins to count down. The longer the delay, the lower the tip count goes. Then, when the need is met, the waitress presses her button, and the tip count starts to recover — until another need is not met; and so on.
A marketing variation would be to have the restaurants buy and install the tip-o-meters, with the understanding that the amount shown would automatically get added to the bill.
The tip-o-meter removes the manipulation on both parties’ part. For the waiter, it removes the uncertainty of dealing with those that don’t play ball with the system, cheapskates, and tricksters and flatterers who then “stiff” her at the end. For the customer, it facilitates counting the cost up front more accurately and removes the danger of exaggerating the tip due to the effect of alcohol, guilt, or flattery. Since the customer controls the initial setting, the American feeling of independence and self-determination should still hold sway.
Everyone stands to benefit — except for the liars and manipulators on either side of the transaction. I hereby grant to any entrepreneur the right to develop this invention.