My father, who is 83 years old, is a good man but a bad tipper. I do not know if the world has changed since he was a young man just starting to take people out, or if it is some peculiarity of my dad’s, but he only leaves 15% (of the pre-tax amount!) if he thinks the service is outstanding. If the service is good or average, he leaves ten. If the service or the food is bad, he leaves somewhere between ten and zero. I have tried to talk to him about this, and I have let him know that most servers do not get paid very much at all and that the tips are what make them end up with a living wage, if they even do, but he does not accept this idea. He says that the point of tips is to give a little something extra to somebody who does good work—that that is why they are called tips, and that they are an incentive, yadda yadda yadda.
My dad and mom love to take my husband and me, and sometimes the kids, out to dinner. Since they live about fifteen minutes away, we go fairly often—at least once a month, plus many special occasions. He never lets us pay. As my mom tells me all the time, being generous to us is one of his greatest pleasures and a matter of pride for him. Although they are not wealthy, my parents are financially secure and live simply, and we never go anywhere fancy, so I do not feel bad about their picking up the tab. But I do feel bad about the stingy tips.
The last time we ate out the service was fine, if not spectacular, and I saw that my dad had tipped what could not have been more than seven or eight percent. So I “forgot” my coat and ran back and left some more cash on the table.
But I was not as sneaky as I thought, and my dad saw me. He returned to the table, shoved my money back into my hand, and told me that he knew how to take care of people and did not appreciate being second-guessed by his own daughter. I could see that I had really hurt his feelings, so I said something like “Sorry, just trying to contribute,” and we left the restaurant and dropped the subject. My husband, bless him, cheered my dad up quite a bit by asking for his opinion on various matters—the state budget, Tony Bennett, grout—for most of the drive back to my parents’ place.
If I do nothing, that will probably be the end of the matter. But should I do nothing? I do not want to hurt my dad’s feelings or seem unappreciative or like a goody-goody. But I don’t want to shortchange the wait staff, either.
—Furtive in Frankfort
I had a similar problem with an older, very proud relative and terrible tipper who was fond of me and was forever taking me out for tête-á-tête meals. In some ways, my situation was worse than yours because I suspected that she could barely afford to pay for the meal, with or without a tip, so we would both end up ordering the cheapest items on the menu and the poor server would get a stingy tip on a tiny tab. On the other hand, my relative was far more gullible than your dad seems to be, so I would usually manage either to augment the tip surreptitiously or, once I left school and got a job, convince her that it would make me feel so pleased and grown-up if I could least leave a gratuity—which usually ended up being very generous because I felt so bad about all those special requests and substitutions Aunt Gert had asked for when ordering nothing but tomato soup with a zillion crackers or a side salad with double croutons, and eking out her one tea bag with five hot-water refills and enough extra creamers to build a good-size tabletop pyramid.
But your dad sounds much cannier. Especially now that you have been caught in an act of flagrant generosity, I don’t think you will be able to get away with even the cleverest running-back-to-the-table gambit, much less telling him that you (or, better, your husband) would be even happier about his taking you out so often if you could pitch in just a little by leaving the tip.
This leaves you with number of options, none of them wonderful.
You could stop eating out with your mother and father. But that strikes me as a terrible idea. It is almost always good for families to break bread together and, the tip issue aside, you all seem to enjoy these dinners.
Or you could try to discuss the matter further with your folks. It sounds as if you have already said all the right things to your dad, with no success. What about your mom, though? If you have reason to believe that she agrees with you on tipping, would she be willing to take up the issue with your dad? If there is any chance she might actually succeed in changing his mind, why not give it a try?
Assuming that you do not want to enlist your mother, or that enlisting her does not work out, you are left with either going along with your dad’s stingy tipping, or resorting to subterfuge. My vote is for subterfuge. I say this because I believe that your dad is clearly in the wrong here; and although respecting one’s parents is important, ensuring that workers get paid fairly when one’s parents are being pigheaded is more important.
If you do decide on subterfuge, you are going to have to work on living up to your nom de June so you’ll actually succeed at being furtive. If your dad catches you again, he is likely to be even more upset than before, and almost certain to be angry—unless you can mollify him with self-deprecating wit—you know, “the bleeding-heart overtipper strikes again.” (My own father would accept almost anything I did if I could make him laugh, especially at my own expense.) The strain and suspicion could carry over for many dinners out.
So how should you sneak? If you know the name of your server and/or the number of your table, you can always deliver or send a second tip the next day or at some later time. Or you can come to the restaurant prepared with an envelope, a twenty or whatever, and a note inside briefly explaining the problem. Then all you’ll need to do is head off to the ladies’ room. While there—much like Michael Corleone when he retrieves the gun hidden behind the toilet tank so he can rub out Virgil “the Turk” Sollozzo—you can hastily seal and address the envelope, then take it to a a discreet place, such as the bar or the hostess stand, where you can hand it off on your way back to your table.
Sneaking around could get dicey if you and your parents go to the same one or two or three restaurants all the time, and have gotten to know the people there. For one thing, your secret would be more likely to leak out. And even if it didn’t, making such a public issue of your father’s poor tipping among people who are acquaintances of a sort gives me pause: it does seem a tad ungrateful to point up your dad to them as a clueless, stingy tipper who needs to be fooled. (On other hand, if your dad is a frequent customer and consistently bad tipper, the wait staff will almost surely know all about it.) One way to avoid publicly dissing your dad would be to drop off several tips’ worth of money for the wait staff—or your usual server, if you have one—as a token of appreciation every so often, perhaps at the holidays. You could simply say that, since you are never the ones who pay, you never get to thank them. Or you could say nothing. But do your best to ensure that they know not to allude to the gift in front of your dad.
If all this sounds needlessly intricate or too stressful, you could try eating at those same restaurants without your folks, asking for the server you had before, and leaving a huge tip. Or, as an imperfect solution but one you may find easier to live with, you and your husband could just make a habit of extremely generous tipping whenever and wherever you pay for your own meals. This will be no help to the servers your dad short-changed, but it will presumably give both you, and whoever gets these small windfalls, a few happy moments.
La Wally says:
Try again to talk to your parents. Give them hard numbers. Servers do no have to get minimum wage. Servers where I live usually get paid $2.83 an hour from the owner, which never even covers taxes. The tips are supposed to make up for this. Sometimes servers lose money on a table that stiffs them because they have to pay the busboys a certain amount out of their day’s total tips.
I agree with June that you should try to tip your server secretly if your parents won’t listen, and that you should at least tip somebody if that doesn’t work.
I have been in a writers’ workshop since it began five years ago. There are currently six of us, all prose writers, and we take turns presenting articles, stories, or parts of longer works.
There used to be eight of us—all founding members—but last year two writers moved away at almost the same time. It has become clear to all of us that we would be better off with one or two new members, so we started looking around.
I think we are about to agree on one of the new members. But there is another prospect several people like, but I do not. “Tim” is a competent if somewhat cold writer, and his credentials are comparable to ours in terms of experience and publications. But I do not think he is a nice person, and I do not trust him. This is partly because I found the (admittedly very clever) piece he gave us to review shallow and gimmicky, and thought he was overly defensive when we gently critiqued it—but mostly because I know of him in another context. Tim and my sister “Angela” are both engineers who work for the city. Over the past year Angela has spoken to me several times about how much she hates working with him, how he is always belittling and even sabotaging the other employees. To hear her tell it, and I have never had reason to doubt her, Tim has been especially obstructive to her in particular, probably because she is a woman, and may have cost her a promotion she had been expecting.
I want to blackball him. Should I?
—Worried in Writersville
I am leaning strongly toward “yes,” but wish I knew a little more about the situation.
Purely as a matter of ethics, I see no reason why you should feel obligated to accept Tim into your group. I doubt very much that yours is the only workshop he could join in the greater Boston area, so you would not be creating a real hardship for him. Nor do I see any reason to assume that Tim’s writing or critiques would be better than those of some future successful applicant for that eighth spot, so your blackballing him would not be depriving your fellow workshoppers of any lasting benefit. In fact, Tim sounds like the sort of terrible coworker who might well be an equally terrible workshop participant: not too many belittlers and saboteurs make good, constructive critics, or take criticism well themselves. There is a very real chance that Tim would tear one or all of you down, or even try to undermine or pirate somebody’s writing. Throw in his apparent sexism, and you have plenty of sound reasons—general pedagogical, organizational, writing-related reasons, I mean, independent of your own discomfort—to reject him.
In any case, if your workshop is like most longstanding, participant-run writers’ groups, the personal element can be very important. Unless the workshop you are in is extraordinarily formal, controlled, and impersonal, your own discomfort is reason enough to keep Tim out of it. If you are worried that his presence would make you nervous—about presenting your work, offering criticism, or even chatting with the group—or if you are simply afraid that knowing how rotten he is to your sister will keep you from enjoying the group, maybe make you attend less regularly, go ahead and vote no.
If you and the group do decide against Tim, try to ensure that Tim does not find out you vetoed or even voted against him, or that his treatment of your sister was part of the reason. You certainly don’t want to enrage him and make him even more eager to mess up Angela’s work life.
In fact, I see no point in your telling the group about Tim and Angela if you can offer a credible, more general explanation for your reservations. I hope that your group gives each member veto power—which is as I think it should be in smallish, longstanding workshops, where one discordant personality can destroy the group dynamic in no time. (Fun linguistic aside: I just looked up “blackball” to see if the term implied veto power, and came upon some great illustrations of ornate wooden boxes with black and white balls in them. The answer, by the way, seems to be “not always,” although the number of black balls required to, say, keep some upstart millionaire out of a moldy old gentlemen’s club was usually quite small.)
If you do have a veto, just tell the group that you find Tim carping and negative, and would not want him to critique your stuff. And, if it has a germ of truth, cite some aspect of his work or attitude that you think makes it better to pass him over and look for someone who is a better fit, or would fill a gap in the group’s expertise, or whatever. You’re a writer: I am sure you can come up with something. In fact, the cold, shallow writing and defensiveness you mention in your letter strike me as sufficient grounds for objection, Angela aside.
If you do not have veto power, and are having trouble convincing your opponents, you will have to decide—as a practical matter—how much you are willing to divulge and how hard you want to fight. Does the group contain people who are friends of Tim’s or have otherwise emerged as his champions? Do any of them already know about the situation with Angela? Does the workshop have a policy of confidentiality in such matters and, if so, do you think everybody will honor it? Have you talked to your sister about any of this?
To sum up: ethics and best workshop practice do not forbid, and may actually favor, giving Tim a miss, but the pragmatic aspects of the problem are not quite so easily resolved. If I were you, I would seek a solution where Tim is out, but his ego suffers as little, and your role in the process remains as quiet, as possible. If your workshop is any good, you and your fellow members regularly lay bare your hearts, souls, and creative insecurities, to say nothing of your stylistic lapses. You need to guard your soft writerly underbellies against the threat of predators and boors.
I hope Tim finds another workshop—and another job.
La Wally’s response:
I do not know anything about writing workshops. But Tim sounds like bad news as a person and nothing special as a writer. I would give him thumbs down.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.
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