What's in a name?

July 28, 2014

The other day I read a very interesting article by C.A. Pinkham: The Gratuitous Injustice of American Tipping Culture. It was originally linked to by The Loop.

It starts with these words by William Scott:

“Unless a waiter can be a gentleman, democracy is a failure. If any form of service is menial, democracy is a failure. Those Americans who dislike self-respect in servants are undesirable citizens; they belong in an aristocracy."

There are few things in this world that upset me more than seeing someone being a jerk to a waiter, or a hotel concierge. Unfortunately, on some occasions the American tipping system actually reinforces this behavior.

Less than 100 years ago, people genuinely believed that there was no such thing as “menial service” to an American, that waiters could be gentlemen, and that service didn’t mean servitude. They believed the idea of tipping was a fundamentally demeaning and classist notion of which they wanted no part. Since then, we appear to have come a long way down a road paved with good intentions.

What the hell went wrong?

I’ve always found the act of tipping to be inherently disrespectful. A culture that perpetuates this practice, in my opinion, is one lacking empathy at the most basic of levels. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one with similar thoughts on the matter.

The entire article is well worth reading, but to me it brought up a different thought.

It’s no secret that in Spain we love the outdoor life: we regularly go out for drinks, eat out… heck, whatever it is, if it can be done out of the house, chances are that’s how we do it. This is particularly true when the weather is nice, which is to say most of the time. We spend more of our waking time in bars and restaurants that practically anywhere else, including our own homes. It’s a well-established part of our culture, and one that I appreciate immensely.

As a result, most people here are used to dealing with servers every day.1 There are no mandatory tips in Spain; instead they’re given out only occasionally. They’re meant as a token of appreciation for exceptionally good service, but they’re hardly a significant part of a server’s wage. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean servers aren’t sometimes treated poorly by customers. That’s something that happens in most developed countries, and fixing it requires more than replacing the tipping culture or making sure every server is paid a fair, dignified wage. That’s evidently a great place to start, but it’s only the beginning.

To me, it really starts with knowing their names. In my day-to-day life I probably interact with more than 20 or 30 servers on a regular basis. I know many of them by name, and some of them I call friends. I always try to make it a point to ask the name of every waiter (or waitress) I talk to. In my mind it’s just a basic show of respect, to acknowledge the other person as a human being and not just a nameless entity that’s there to produce whatever I need at that particular moment. It’s a little thing, sure, but in my experience it’s really appreciated and it goes a long way.

Yesterday, for example, we went to a nice Italian place for a late-afternoon cup of coffee. It was a quaint little restaurant owned by Marco, a young italian man with a full beard and an infectious smile. I started taking to him and he turned out to be an exceptionally charming man, so much so that what was supposed to be a 20-minute coffee turned into a two-hour conversation and a few new friends made along the way. This is the sort of present that anyone willing to set their prejudices aside can get every day, if they only take a chance.

The truth is, some of the most interesting people I’ve ever known work behind a bar. I’ve always believed it takes a certain character to do that job well, and I deeply admire them. Perhaps it’s a romantic notion carried over from a different era, back when a waiter, a taxi driver or a hotel concierge often represented your best bet to fix almost any pressing matter. Got hungry at 4 a.m.? No problem. Need to find the only place in the city that stocks a particular brand of whisky? Easy. Want to find out the name of the beautiful woman you saw on the elevator that morning? You got it. This uncanny ability to problem-solve beyond their job description often earned them high praise and respect from their patrons. Ironically, their appreciation was often expressed by means of a generous tip, but this tip was a different animal entirely: a gesture of respect through and through.

Unfortunately, that era is long gone, and those well-intentioned tips have evolved into the demeaning practice we see today. The good news is, the true professionals are still there, if you know where to look. I always find refuge in these characters when I’m far from home; a knowing smile and a nod from a bartender is all it takes to bring me right back to a happier place. Luckily I have a keen eye for spotting them, and I can never resist the temptation to approach them and share in a bit of their story.

To come back full circle, we would all be better off if tips didn’t exist. It’s an embarrassing system, but unfortunately it doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon. It’s also just part of a bigger problem so if, like me, you feel like a complete jerk every time you tip, the only advice I can give you is this: try to connect with the person, and respect the job; theirs is a profession bearing a long tradition of excellence and discretion. Ask them what their name is. Shake their hand. You’ll be surprised to see what a difference it makes. Talk to them like actual human beings, and stop thinking for a second about what you want. Then, when it’s time to tip, do it generously, and don’t forget to thank them. It’ll take a bit of practice, but eventually you’ll stop feeling like a jerk.

  1. I was hesitant to use the word “servers” because in my head it’s already tainted. However, I refuse to concede this point and hereby reclaim the right to use this word with all the respect and appreciation it deserves.