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Editor's Note March 2014

The other day my affluent friend Kate gave our server at a Midtown restaurant a 12 percent tip on our well-served meal. I had to say something.

Cristina Cuomo

An argument ensued about what was proper and standard, and she said she just didn’t like tipping. But as it turns out, most New Yorkers do. Here, tipping is fashionable.

Emily Post wrote about the importance of acknowledging those who provide a service with a tip. A fun tipping legend: The word “tip,” some speculate, is an acronym from the phrase “To Insure Promptitude,” which famed English writer Samuel Johnson noticed printed on a gratuity bowl at an inn in England, where tipping reportedly originates.

Even though—or, possibly, because—the United States is the most tip-friendly country in the world (Professor Michael Lynn, who teaches at my alma mater, Cornell University, estimates that nationwide tipping reaches $40 billion annually, and New Yorkers average a 19.1 percent tip at restaurants), minimum wage for tipped restaurant workers is $2.13 an hour. Bad tips are socially frowned upon, and in our city, social mores dictate that more than ever. While tipping is discretionary, 20 percent is the norm in my book, and I feel comfortable with that based purely on those stats.  

In some countries, like Iceland and Japan, tipping is offensive—it’s even illegal in others. And some experts view tipping as promoting inequality, which is why it was banned in communist USSR and China, and it isn’t widely accepted in Scandinavia, a place where there’s more economic equality. 

With inequality still pervasive in this country, it’s more important than ever to tip evenly and well (unless service charges are included, of course). Most tipping recipients’ livelihoods depend on it. Shouldn’t tipping propagate the American notion that working hard brings reward?
Post also noted the inconsistency of tipping for one service but not another. It’s always nice to surprise your manicurist or colorist, for example, with an added bonus at holiday time; and it’s customary to give the ski instructor you’ve spent a week with a full day’s fee. Seem steep? My longtime tennis instructor, Mr. Green, says no. “It’s considered bad form among us teachers not to be recognized for our efforts. The same tip percentage that applies to a waiter should be applied to us.”

On the other end of the spectrum there’s an acquaintance of mine who says, “If I pay a big fee for the service, the tip should be included. I didn’t tip my watersports instructor, whom we hired for a week to play with our kids on a recent vacation in Fiji.” While tipping in that country isn’t customary, it should be for the American import. If you can afford the service, you can afford the tip. 

As Benjamin Franklin once wisely said on a trip to Paris, “To overtip is to appear an ass: To undertip is to appear an even greater ass.”