Here in America, we have an interesting outlook on most things economic. We (as a nation) like to think of this as the land of opportunity, where the only thing separating the single mother working at Starbucks from Bill Gates is some good decision-making and a bunch of hard work. This is, of course, laughably naïve horseshit, but it doesn't keep millions of Real Americans™ from propping up the fantasy of personal responsibility and rugged individualism that leads to literally taking food from poor children while guaranteeing rich farm owners' income.
We are a nation founded on an "I've got mine" me-first dogma, and in its current form it extends from our tax policy (where we bizarrely give money to the rich under the guise of giving money to the poor) to dining out, where a not-insubstantial number of adult human people with ostensibly logical brains feel that there's something wrong or unjust in giving an extra six dollars to the person that just served them their $30 entree for $2.13 an hour.
You are wrong if you believe this. You are wrong, and you are an asshole. You should be tipping at least 20%, always and forever, or at least until business owners are required to give their employees things like a living wage and health insurance and all the other things that everyone should get because we're human beings. If you disagree, you are wrong and to reiterate, you're an asshole*.
There are many arguments against giving a proper tip, and they are all terrible, but they mostly coalesce into a few main threads:
1. Tipping is in place as an incentive to provide good service (i.e., the To Insure Proper Service Fallacy)
To answer the first question, regarding etymology: No.
To answer the second question, regarding social propriety: Also no. Let me preface this by saying that I don't know a damn thing about the origin of tipping, which has literally no bearing on the conversation. We're talking about how you, as a fully functioning member of society, should tip now, not in days of yore. When you build a time machine and travel back to the Sword in the Stone times or whenever the hell tipping was started, feel free to tip whatever is the proper amount for the time. Also, watch out for the plague.
Whatever the history, tips in 2014 are part and parcel of a restaurant server's earnings (average earnings $18,400 per year) and a large percentage of these workers don't have health insurance, or sick days, or holiday pay, or vacation. Yes, there is a requirement that servers be paid the mandated minimum wage, but for many restaurant servers nationwide, the first $5.12 per hour that they earn in tips goes toward the difference in minimum wage for which restaurant owners lobbied Congress to let them off the hook - a difference which disproportionately affects women and people of color. Tipped minimum wage has also not increased in 23 years, which means that the amount your server has to pay to catch up keeps increasing.
2. The server was rude to me/forgot my drink/screwed up my order [so I'm released from my own social obligation]!
I have a job. Some days, I do my job really well and I am worth every penny that I make and more. Other days, I overslept or I feel sick (though I actually get sick days so I don't have to go to work every day to pay the rent) or I had a fight with my significant other or I'm just feeling tired, and my work suffers for it. Maybe I'm snappy with my co-workers, or antisocial or maybe I just get distracted with my thoughts and delete the wrong line of a spreadsheet. Guess what? I still get paid the same amount.
A very strong majority of the people I hear consistently complaining about rudeness from the server are assholes, and there's probably a reason the server was rude to them. If the server was rude, that's an issue for their employer to work out, and if there's a particularly egregious flouting of social norms, a food safety issue, or some other serious breach, then it could be pointed out to someone in a position of authority (note: this is not permission to run to the manager every time you're given a snotty tone - maybe in the far-distant future when we unionize servers or give them some actual workplace protections you can do that, sport).
But the vast, vast majority of "terrible service" is, at worst, a series of minor conveniences inflated to tragic status by people disinclined to tip in the first place. Your meal is already being subsidized by your servers substandard wages; mayonnaise on your burger when you SPECIFICALLY ASKED FOR NO MAYO is no excuse for refusing to pay your designated portion of the workers' salaries.
3. Why aren't you putting it on the employer to pay a decent wage? Why do I have to pay more because the owner of the restaurant doesn't pay well?
There's already a movement in place to abolish the lower minimum wage for tipped employees. Some restaurants are banning tipping in favor of rolling the cost of a living wage into their food prices. So far six states require at least some employers to pay servers at or above the federal minimum wage and another 25 have a tipped minimum wage above the federal requirement of $2.13 (though many of these are barely above that and all of them are abominably low). None of these states require a living wage be paid to tipped employees. Almost none of your servers have health insurance. And none of this releases you from the responsibility that comes with enjoying a partially subsidized meal.
3. When I get bad service, I tip two pennies so they know I'm not just an asshole that doesn't tip.
4. What happened to the old standard of 15%? Why are you changing the rules on me? Do you have any arguments that don't involve calling people "assholes"?
If you do live in a state with a minimum wage for servers even more pathetically low than the already pathetically low minimum wage, remember that for servers, wages haven't moved in TWENTY-THREE YEARS. Even if you live in a state that pays servers minimum wage, surviving on minimum wage is a fool's errand, and even government benefits are insufficient to give people a life that keeps them happy and healthy. And eating out is something that requires disposable income. If you feel being served food by other people is a worthy way to dispose of said income, but doing your part to provide a survivable wage to the person serving it is not, then that makes you a selfish asshole (sorry, one for the road).
Do you want to do something about it? One suggestion: agitate for change. Fight for a higher minimum wage. Fight to abolish the exemption for servers. Quit subsidizing substandard wages. Be warned, though. This will result in an increase in the price on the menu. The only difference is that you'll be required to pay the full cost of that chicken piccata instead of just being expected to.
In any case, let's take a great bit of advice that I'm paraphrasing from John Hodgman: Tipping well is one of the few things we can do that makes a small difference in our own lives, but makes a big difference in someone else's. There, there's your positive message. Now tip better, assholes.
Joshua David can be found on Twitter at @joshuaadavidd.
Image via Robert S. Donovan.