Tipping Points

Irecently heard of a woman who’d perfected a surefire method of getting her airline tickets upgraded. En route to the airport, she buys a gaily dressed fruit basket. At the check-in desk, she sets it down on the counter in front of the boarding agent. When the agent invariably comments on the basket, she says in a cheery voice, “Oh, yes, isn’t it wonderful? My co-workers just gave it to me as part of a big send-off. But I don’t know how I’ll manage it on the plane.” After a pause, she suddenly gets an idea: “Why don’t you take it and share it with the other agents?” She holds firm through some polite oh-I-couldn’ts and are-you-sures before the basket is accepted. And when her boarding pass is returned to her, it almost always reveals a bump to business class.

This is a classic example of an inducement tip (also known as a bribe). Most tipping is not of the inducement variety but a simple reward for good service. But the two forms of compensation are similar in that they reach beyond the prescribed standards of payment. It’s up to you to decide how much to give and how to give it. Such ambiguity can cause many people to whine like a Woody Allen character after sex: Was that good enough? Should I have done more? Do you think they liked it? But situations that call for a little something extra should be looked upon as opportunities, not traps. And as with anything else, it helps to know what’s expected of you.

Bars and Restaurants
This may come as a surprise to some, but the old standard of 15 percent for servers hasn’t been standard for some time now. The Zagat Survey began asking people about their tipping habits a couple of years ago and found that the average restaurant tip in major U.S. cities is just over 17 percent. That means doubling the tax to figure your tip leaves you on the chintzy side. (New Yorkers aren’t the most generous tippers in the country. Although we beat the national average, Philadelphia’s 18.5 percent puts us to shame.)

Some restaurateurs wish their patrons didn’t have to tip at all. Danny Meyer of Union Square Cafe has long favored switching to a European-style gratuity-included system, but for now he recommends his customers tip according to how they rate their service on a five-point scale, from poor or fair (10 to 14 percent) to extraordinary (21 to 25 percent). One thing you should never do, he says, is completely stiff a server, not even if service reaches Kafkaesque proportions of incompetence and neglect. “There are so many things outside of the control of a waiter,” he says. The best thing to do is leave a bare-minimum tip and speak to the manager. “And then you make your next reservation with that same manager, and you’re going to get exactly what you want.”

Bartenders are a different story. The point of tipping bartenders isn’t so much to reward the service you’ve already received as to insure promptness (supposedly the seventeenth-century English origin of the word: t.i.p.) the next time you order a round. Expectations vary: A buck a drink is generous at the Blarney Stone, an insult at the Bowery Bar. “At dive bars, they make great money, because they’re banging out drinks,” explains Rich, a bartender at Lotus. “But at a place like this, it’s more about presentation, so it takes longer.” Rich concedes that a dollar is okay if you’re ordering a Bud, but for a $10 Cosmopolitan, the fair tip is $2 or $3.

Rewarding bartenders and wait staff is a bunny slope compared to the double-black-diamond run of trying to grease your way into a fully booked restaurant. For starters, don’t even bother trying to tip for a table at the Le Bernardins and Daniels of the world. Tom Piscitello, the St. Peter at the gates of heavenly Babbo, has been offered everything and the moon by diners unable to wait a month to taste chef Mario Batali’s beef-cheek ravioli. “One night somebody just started naming numbers and going up as if it were a bidding war,” Piscitello recalls. “They got up to $700, just for a table. That’s sickness.” Piscitello politely reminded the diner of all the needy charities in the world and turned him away.

The odds get better at restaurants that are more about scene than about cuisine. The hip and pretty gatekeepers you find behind the podiums at flavor-of-the-week restaurants are, by nature, more disposed to accept a subtly proffered bribe because they’re young and trying to afford a TriBeCa apartment.

Apartment Buildings
A random survey of doormen around the city revealed a wide range of expectations. Depending on the priciness of the address and the size of the building, assistance with a heap of packages, cat-sitting for a day, or keeping an eye on a double-parked car can run you $5 to $10. Since most of these services fall under the doorman’s job description, you can get away with not tipping, but don’t expect him to drop everything when you’ve really got a problem. Then there are those delicate situations where not to tip is to court disaster. “What happens all the time is, a guy’s wife is away and he’ll come in with his mistress and hand you a fifty,” says one Park Avenue doorman. “That’s a you-didn’t-see-nothin’ tip.”

For the staff in New York buildings, the holidays must feel like a Mafia wedding, what with the number of cash-filled envelopes that come their way. A super at a luxury building of 200 units who averages $50 per tenant is pulling in a cool five-figure cash bonus – tax-free, if he’s disinclined to report it. Gifts are welcome, too. The doorman gossip circuit is still buzzing about the lucky stiff working a York Avenue building who received a Nissan 300ZX for Christmas a few years ago.

There are two things to consider when you’re determining how much to give. The first is building size – the smaller the building, the larger your bonus should be. The second is the level of luxury. Lawrence Vitelli of Insignia Residential Group, which manages some of the highest-priced properties in the city, says supers at its big buildings routinely get between $100 and $300 from each tenant, and at small buildings, $500 to $1,000 is not unheard of. But chances are you won’t have to shell out that much. For most buildings, $30 to $50 is appropriate for doormen, $50 to $100 for supers. Support staff like handymen and elevator operators are in the $20-to-$30 range. Adjustments should always be made according to seniority, and if you’re planning on doing any kind of renovation in the upcoming year, it’s in your best interest to give the super more than usual.

Beauty Salons and Barbers
The multitasking heirarchy at beauty salons can make tipping a tangled prospect. The general rule is that the more time someone devotes to you, the bigger the tip. “A lot of assistants do the entire blow-dry, so if they spent 45 minutes, that should be more on the $10 side of things,” says Connie Voines, a stylist at Bumble & Bumble. “But if it’s just a hand-dry that takes three seconds, then of course you should tip accordingly.”

Many salons provide tipping envelopes and a secure place to deposit them, to save clients the time of walking around the salon trying to find everyone who worked on them as well as the discomfort of handing out money. Put each tip in a separate envelope, and don’t forget to put your name and a little personal note of thanks on the outside. If you’re paying by credit card, you should still tip in cash via the envelope. And don’t feel guilty about not tipping the receptionist.

Taxis and Town Cars
Tourist guidebooks usually advise tipping cabbies 10 to 15 percent, but the best formula I’ve heard came from a magazine editor who takes a lot of taxis for work. If the fare is under $5, round up to the next dollar and add 50 cents. If the fare is between $5 and $10, round up to the next dollar and add $1. For fares over $10, round up and add $1.50 or $2.

I ran this by some drivers, and all declared it reasonable. They were surprisingly forgiving of low tips, perhaps because, with an unsympathetic TLC and a high-risk job environment, cheap tippers are the least of their problems. Says a three-year vet named Joseph: “A bad passenger is the one who doesn’t tip, a worse passenger is the one who doesn’t pay, and the very worst is the one who sticks a gun in your ear.”

If you often work late and take a company-paid car service home, you probably don’t tip, figuring it’s somehow included in the price. It almost never is. And if you use vouchers and have been writing in a tip, you may be wasting your time – many companies refuse to pay such tips when the monthly bill comes around. An optional $2 to $5, depending on distance, should do.

Creative Tipping
The first lesson to learn about bribery is that flattery works. “Compliments are absolutely amazing pieces of communication,” says Dr. Kelton Rhoads, a social psychologist and persuasion expert who offers influence consultation through his Website, Influenceatwork.com. “If I compliment you, even if you know that I’m kissing up, amazingly, studies have shown it will still affect your behavior on my behalf.” The second thing to remember is that rare is the situation that can’t be improved by a discreet show of appreciation. One Upper East Side mother, upon learning that her kids’ private-school bus stopped six blocks away from her building, wondered how stops were assigned. It remained an open question until Christmas, when she tipped her children’s driver $50. At the start of the new year, the bus suddenly had a new designated stop right on their street.

Then there are the situations where bribes are practically a tradition. Next time you’re stuck in cumulus-level seats at the ballgame, stroll down to the lower deck and explain to the usher or security guard on duty that you forgot your binoculars, and might there be anything open in his section? A tenner folded against your ticket will usually do the trick.

But the most important thing to remember about bribing (or tipping, for that matter) is that, just as on Dance Fever, you get points for style. Not long ago, a friend of mine was waiting in line at a chichi SoHo club behind a gorgeous woman and her frumpily dressed date. The bouncer waved the knockout right in but stopped her companion with a curt “Sorry, no jeans.” Rather than throw a fit, the man coolly produced a fifty and said, “I think if you look more closely you’ll see that these aren’t jeans. They’re blue cotton trousers.”

Tipping Points