Workers, customers and etiquette experts debate tipping at the counter

Picture this: You’re at the counter. Maybe you bought a coffee or a scone or are picking up a pizza you ordered online. When you go to pay, a tablet flips in your direction. “It’s just going to ask you a few questions,” you’re told.

The main one: Would you like to leave a tip?

It can feel like a real quandary, Saad Kabir, a recruitment director at New York City public schools told CNBC Make It in a man-on-the-street style interview.

“I just feel like the tablet is staring into my soul,” he says. “And I feel so bad because there’s a line of people behind me, and I’m like, f—, I don’t do this.”

For the record, etiquette experts say Kabir isn’t breaking any social rules when he decides not to tip in those situations, even if he feels the people behind him in line might judge him for it.

“When you have something delivered to you over the counter, as opposed to your door or your table, in those instances, you’re not required to tip,” says Elaine Swann, an etiquette expert and founder of the Swann School of Protocol.

The thinking here is that over-the-counter workers earn a wage, and therefore rely less on tips than servers or delivery people.

But given that these workers don’t often earn much more than minimum wage (which is still $7.25 per hour at the federal level), it’s a guideline that may need to be reconsidered, says Bella Biagio, a 35-year veteran of the service industry in Seattle.

“The problem is that we don’t have jobs in this industry, in general, to make a living wage,” she says.

Like servers and bartenders, many baristas and counter workers often need tips to make ends meet — tips that they regularly have to pool and share with fellow employees, Biagio says. “If you decide it’s OK for you not to tip, it affects many people — not just the humans standing in front of you.”

The effects of ‘tipflation’: ‘People are feeling imposed upon’

If you feel like you’re being asked to tip practically everywhere these days — on top of rising prices across the board — you’re not alone. Thomas Farley, an etiquette expert known as “Mister Manners,” has called the phenomenon “tipflation.”

“People are really feeling imposed upon,” he recently told CNBC Make It. “We’re already living through inflationary times. Everything is crazy expensive. And on top of that, you’re being asked, every time you turn around, ‘How much would you like to tip?'”

In this environment, it becomes a question of where to draw the line with your generosity. Farley says you should always tip barbers and restaurant servers, for instance, and never feel pressured to tip a professional, such as a doctor or lawyer.

In those gray areas, where tips are a matter of customer discretion, it seems everyone is feeling the squeeze. “We’ve noticed a decrease in tips,” says Shannon Tanski Cornelius, founder and CEO of Yellow Bike Coffee in Duluth, Minnesota. That’s a problem for both her business and her workers, she says.

“We’re not Starbucks. We’re not Caribou. We absolutely cannot be paying people $20 or $25 an hour,” she says. “And that’s why we rely heavily on tips. We pay good wages. We paid probably higher than organizationally we can even withstand.”

It’s a reality that may leave a sour taste in customers’ mouths. After all, it certainly feels as though the onus ought to be on the business owner, not its customers, to make sure its employees can live on the wages they’re paid.

“I feel like there is [pressure to tip more frequently], but honestly — my honest opinion — I think that’s mainly because businesses are hurting right now,” Kabir says. “So then they’re just trying to pass the buck on to the consumer.”

‘Don’t let technology interfere with an exchange between two real, live people’

Even if consumers are shouldering the burden of fair pay in the service industry, their gripe should be with business owners or legislators who deal with these issues, says Biagio — not the person standing in front of you.

“You can make your own coffee or make your own cocktail at home. We’re doing this for you,” she says. “And if we could start looking at it like, ‘these people are helping me,’ rather than ‘they’re against me,’ it would make our lives a lot better until we have a universal living wage for people in this industry.”

It’s a sentiment that likely rings true for Claire Wegner. The 30-year-old Australian tips only for exceptional service in her home country, but upped her tipping virtually everywhere on a recent visit to the States.

“A lot of my experience with paying here is, my card will get run, and then they will give me the card machine and it will say, ‘Do you want to tip 10%/15%/20%, and they’re watching me,” she says. “But also, you know, fair enough. If I didn’t earn enough to live, I’d be bloody watching someone too, saying, ‘Come on!'”

Ultimately, who you decide to tip is your choice. The etiquette police aren’t coming to haul you away if you don’t give a little extra when you pick up your croissant.

But when a tablet flips your way, it’s important to remember that what you’re ultimately having is a human interaction in addition to a financial one, says Daniel Post Senning, co-author of “Emily Post’s Etiquette: The Centennial Edition.”

“Don’t let technology interfere with an exchange between two real, live people,” he says. “There’s appreciativeness to good tipping, and it’s important to keep that feeling central.”

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CHECK OUT: 3 places people say they never tip amid ‘tipflation’: ‘It’s out of control’


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