I started waitressing when I was 16 years old. I would get up at 4 am to be at the diner by 5 and I would watch the sunrise from my bike as I rode down the nearly empty highway. My customers were mostly regulars- truckers- and what they didn’t give me in cash tips, they gave me in genuine and warm compliments, camaraderie and jokes. One very drunk college student one night didn’t have tip money, so he wrote me a check for a million dollars. I still have it in my desk, waiting till I see his name someday in Forbes magazine or something.
As I grew older I returned to waitressing a couple times. I was good at it. Eventually, I opened my own café, the only one in my tiny town. We didn’t have waiters, just bar help. But we had a big glass tip jar on the counter. My small staff and I always noticed who tipped well and who didn’t – did you know that, that we talk about you behind your back if you don’t leave a tip, even at a counter or a bar?
They say you can tell a lot about a person based on how they tip. I believe this too. I find the tipping moment to be anxiety ridden if a friend or family member is responsible for it; “What will they do? Are they about to reveal themselves to be awful people, right here and now? Will I ever look at them the same way? What if they don’t tip enough, how can I slip more cash onto the table?” I wonder in real panic. Once, in a fancy restaurant, my husband and I witnessed the humiliation of a more than capable and lovely waitress by some truly snooty people. We overheard the whole thing, ending with an exchange between the diners about how 10% was “way too much to leave”. Matthew and I wrote the waitress a note and slipped a ten into it, trying to make up for her loss at the other table. We felt a little like Superheroes, righting Tipping-Wrongs wherever we went.
I once heard that in a study, scientists found that waitresses use just as much brain power as a brain surgeon at work. I don’t know if this is true, but it feels true to me. When you do service work, you are at the behest of anyone who wants you, eight or more hours at a time. It’s similar to being a parent or babysitter, only with a revolving cast of characters, all with their own quirks and edges, demands and requests. It’s tough work. Anyone can have a bad day. If I get bad service I always try to give the benefit of the doubt and ask myself “would you be any better at this work today?” and the answer is often “no.”
I don’t have a lot of money, but I believe I shouldn’t eat out if I can’t afford to tip big.
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