Do you know what it's like to have been lost in a desert and then handed a cold drink of water (with a smile)?
Neither do I. But one of the closest things in my life was getting served at an American restaurant for the first time.
I come from France. Worse, I come from Paris. Here, waiters are almost universally dour, unkind, frequently forget or mess up your orders, and generally scowly. No, tourists, it's not just you. I mean, they probably turn it up to 11 for the tourists, but it's already a 10 for the rest of us. Smiling doesn't help. Being nice doesn't help.
Service, for Parisians, is one of the small inconveniences of life. It's not the worst thing in the world, but it will wear you down.
And so when I first had a meal at an American restaurant, where the waitress was friendly and peppy, quick with the order, and inquisitive about how everything was, I felt like I had landed on a different planet. And it wasn't a fluke! It happened over, and over, and over again.
I went back to my home country, and it was like telling them that in America, whiskey comes out of the tap.
Now, since I'm already grossly generalizing about large groups of people, I will say that Americans do tend to take what they have for granted. This is one of the saddest things in the world.
It really is glorious, your service culture. You have no idea how good it is. It's like the stories of people from Communist countries who went into a supermarket for the first time and just broke down and cried. To us, it's just a store, but it's actually magical. Same thing with American service culture.
Which is why when I see Americans — predominantly, let's face it, elite, liberal Americans — who want to destroy one of the nicest things about their country, and one of the nicest things in my life, I get positively angry. I am talking, of course, about the movement against tipping, seen here recently in The Economist (The Economist! Not Pravda! The Economist!), and also in Vox (of course).
I'm no fool. I realize my waitress (or waiter) is not smiling at me out of the overflowing goodness of her heart. There's something in it for her. But in France, tipping is basically illegal. The waiter doesn't have any reason to be nice.
One reason advanced against tipping is that it's inegalitarian. Another way to phrase it is that it's meritocratic: Great waiters get more money. I don't see the problem.
Now, maybe employers should just pay their waiters full wages and benefits. Which they can totally afford to do, because as everyone knows, owning your own restaurant is just the most lucrative business in the universe. Of course, Starbucks can afford to pay its baristas relatively-nice salaries and benefits and not rely on tipping, so forcing service establishments to offer this flotilla of requirements favors the big chains. And, again, they tried this in France: Employment is so expensive, due to payroll taxes of 50 percent, that bars and restaurants are chronically understaffed, leading to poor service. Or they're paid off the books, in which case waiters get no benefits. The beatings, as they say, will continue until morale improves.
Also, some say that tipping is sexist, that the people who benefit the most are cute girls, and that's just wrong. First of all, I would dispute that — after all, not all patrons of bars and restaurants are lecherous men. In fact, I would guesstimate about 50 percent of them are women. But secondly, even if it were true — well excuuuuuse me, Mr. Liberal Elite, if there still exists in this world some way to make money that isn't linked to how you did on your SATs.
The final argument just might be the worst, that exposes opposition to tipping as rank elitism and classism — it's just dirty. Vox's Brandon Ambrosino quotes approvingly the writer Michael Lewis deriding tipping as a "baksheesh economy." Would that be an economy where money is exchanged for services, and where quality of service is economically rewarded? What an odious notion.
Well, I'm sorry, but there's a grandeur to tipping. There is a beauty to this simple transaction, to rewarding a job well done with a just recompense. There is a beauty to someone who tries to do their job well, and with a smile. It should be rewarded — and without tipping, it won't be. Even when I was a student on a budget, I would tip extravagantly, because I was just so happy to be able to participate in this culture of small glories.
Many things in life are drawn in shades of gray. This is not one of them. Tipping culture is one of the great things in the world, and people who disagree should be tarred and feathered.
Or, worse, made to wait 30 minutes for their order in a Paris tourist trap.