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Tip Trouble 

When you're berated by a waiter for a too-small gratuity

Wednesday, Apr 27 2005
Dear Social Grace,

A friend and I recently had dinner at a small restaurant in our neighborhood. The waiter was a little grumpy and he got one of our soups wrong, but he was by no means awful. My friend paid with her credit card and she added a tip of more than 20 percent. We both have worked in customer-service jobs, so we're pretty forgiving of grumpy-but-not-awful service.

The waiter came over and asked her whether his service had been satisfactory, and because she's a sweet person, she said it was fine. Then the waiter got very accusatory, saying, "Well, the customary tip is usually 15 percent."

It turns out he had read my friend's writing wrong, thinking she had tipped about 7 or 8 percent. But my friend was totally embarrassed by this guy. She was so upset that I later called the restaurant and spoke to that waiter. He apologized for misreading the check but not for confronting my friend over what he thought was an unsatisfactory tip. I got a little bit pissy and did the whole "I've been going to that restaurant for more than a decade" thing (which totally embarrasses me now). So I asked to speak to an owner -- and the waiter said he was a co-owner. And I said, "You're the owner of the restaurant? How bad is business that the owner is complaining about a tip?!" I also told him that I would never eat at his restaurant again and that I would be sure to tell all my friends not to eat there.

So was I a total jerk? Or is it acceptable for a food server to confront a restaurant patron about a low tip?

Disgruntled Patron

Dear Disgruntled Madam or Sir,

You were not a total jerk, no. It sounds as though you were quite justifiably peeved -- a food server ought not reprimand customers about the tips they leave (as much as some customers may need a reprimand). And if a waiter believes that a customer has underpaid, that discussion should be handled apologetically, in a way that other people won't overhear. That a restaurant owner would berate a customer over a low tip -- and then defend the practice -- is, frankly, hard to believe. If I were you, I might put my pique in a letter and mail it to the restaurant, just in case a certain grumpy food server wasn't being altogether truthful.

However, if you do compose a letter, or if something like this happens again to you, avoid sarcasm. That's the only place where your behavior got a little jerky. Sarcasm (like shouting, using foul language, and making obviously empty threats) usually makes a person seem foolish and ineffective. In a situation like this, your target demeanor should be a kind of dignified outrage -- unless extreme measures are called for, and unless you're very certain about your withering-sarcasm skills. Most people aren't nearly as good at this as they think they are.

Other than that, your behavior was above reproach. You tried to address your problem privately with the owner (or manager) of the business. The owner failed even to properly apologize, so your next best recourse is never to dine at that establishment again and, as you did, to tell the owner of your intentions. You will also have the satisfaction, when asked for your opinions on restaurants in your neighborhood, of steering friends and acquaintances away from a potentially unpleasant dining experience. Simply say something like, "I've had very bad service there, and the management didn't seem to care." No further details are necessary.

Dear Social Grace,

I now pay $200 to have my hair colored; am I seriously expected to pay a $40 tip if I am happy with the service?


Dear Laurel,

A standard tip for a more complicated hair-salon procedure is 20 percent, yes. (A wash-and-style sort of thing or a simple haircut involves a 10 to 15 percent gratuity.) Because this amount is customary, most stylists earn a salary that presupposes a supplementary income in tips. If $240 seems like too much money to spend on your hair, you're welcome to find a less expensive salon (I found two in a matter of minutes). But if it's the gratuity that irks you, I recommend that you either try coloring your own hair next time or forgo this luxury altogether.

Dear Social Grace,

I'll be attending a wedding in Palm Springs in May. On the invitation it stated that the attire was "desert cocktail." Any thoughts as to what that might mean would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you,

Dear Kelly,

Well, "cocktail attire" means that men wear suits and women wear dresses (one of those "little black dresses" you hear so much about) or dressy pantsuits -- you dress as if you were going to a very nice restaurant. (For the benefit of some Californians, I may need to elaborate on that a bit: When one goes to a very nice restaurant, one doesn't wear jeans, flip-flops, or baseball caps, and one does cover one's navel.)

To me, "desert" attire means plenty of sunscreen, sturdy shoes, and a canteen. But I can't imagine that this is what your hosts have in mind (promise me, though, that if the wedding reception does turn out to be some sort of desert-survival experience, you'll write back with a recap). They've simply gotten creative with normal invitation wording -- always a dangerous prospect, for reasons demonstrated here. I assume that your hosts want guests to wear warm-weather cocktail attire (lighter fabrics, perhaps eschewing neckties). But in your place, I might ask, just to be sure.

Dear Social Grace,

I'm getting married in August, and we're trying to figure out the proper etiquette for the invitations. We both have homes established and we don't want gifts. We want money. How would I word that on an invitation? Can you please help me?

Thank you sooooo much.

Dear Jasmin,

You did the right thing by coming to me. Usually, I get letters only from the irked recipients of invitations that ask for money. It's nice to tackle this problem at its root.

Jasmin, you must never put any information about gifts in an invitation. And if you're asking for money, make that "never, ever, ever, ever!" Doing so looks unspeakably greedy.

You can, however, let a couple of people close to you -- a parent and a sibling, say -- know what your gift preferences are. If a guest then asks your sister, for instance, where you are registered, she can say, "Jasmin isn't registered anywhere. Although she's far too polite to mention it herself, I know she and John are saving for a house. Perhaps a contribution to their down-payment fund would be nice." If someone asks you directly, though, your hints will have to be a bit broader than that to be seemly.

About The Author

Social Grace


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