Waiter’s phony $10 tip includes a religious lesson

I have a few conflict-of-interest disclosures to get off my chest before wading into this mess:

  1. My daughter Larissa spent many years and countless long, hard hours of her young life waiting tables while attending university.
  2. I am a generous tipper for good service. See #1 for the reason why.
  3. When I worked in P.R. for an international Christian aid organization years ago, I used to cringe in embarrassment on the very rare occasions when our office went out for lunch together. Typically, I’d be one of the very few in our party who left a tip. Many of my über-devout colleagues never tipped our servers. Ever. One even openly blamed his modest wages as his excuse for stiffing the waitstaff, to which I would immediately respond with something charitable like: “Then you should be eating under the Golden Arches, you frickety-frackin’ cheapskate!”

Claire Gordon, writing in Daily Finance, has recently reported on a distressing dining-out trend in some Christian circles that brings me back to those embarrassing moments.

She writes about a young male waiter who went to retrieve a $10 bill peeking out from under a diner’s plate recently, when he reportedly noticed something curious about this generous tip.  The tip wasn’t monetary, but took the form of advice printed on a fake $10 bill:

“SOME THINGS ARE BETTER THAN MONEY like your eternal salvation, that was bought and paid for by Jesus going to the cross.”

The waiter, who makes $2.65 base pay an hour, didn’t take well to getting so self-righteously stiffed.  (The verb “to stiff”, by the way, means: “To cheat someone of something owed; to fail to give or supply something expected or promised.” Urban Dictionary)

While this fake $10 tip nonsense certainly isn’t the rule among Christians, writes Gordon, it may not be an exception. These phony bills appeared at least as far back as the summer of 2006 during the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting in Greensboro, North Carolina, when they began to show up around town under the empty plates of retreating restaurant diners attending the convention that year.

The rumour that Christians are poor tippers has apparently been whispered in restaurant circles for a long time. Even Justin Wise, the director of a Lutheran ministry in Des Moines, Iowa, wrote in The Lutheran magazine in January 2009 that many waiters try not to work Sunday brunch so as to avoid notoriously stingy churchgoers.

“Christians don’t tip very well.  As a matter of fact, we’re pretty cheap. What makes this worse is that we paint ‘cheap’ with a religious-sounding veneer and call it ‘being a good steward.’ Nothing like hiding behind the Bible to camouflage your stinginess.”

Claire Gordon explains that this is a particularly uncomfortable phenomenon to face for a religious community that values generosity, justice and service. Daniel Readle, a pastor at a Baptist church in Cleveland, on his blog Christ and Culture, wrote:

“By leaving tracts and not tips, that person is saying to their waiter or waitress, ‘You are not a person, but rather just a notch on my belt of evangelistic pride’.”

I understand that there are a considerable number of restaurant patrons who oppose the idea of compulsory tipping, particularly feeling pressured to tip a proscribed percentage (15-20%) whether your service has been stellar or merely mediocre.  We can generalize that there are indeed in our society the generous tippers, the under-tippers, and then there are the nothing-at-all-tippers.

Let me just say that if you are planning to leave no tip at all for cause (let’s say, for example, you’ve witnessed your server spitting in the soup), then the only decent thing to do is to go directly to the restaurant owner with your complaint before you leave the building. You do not stiff your server because you don’t like your food – that’s the pervue of the kitchen chef alone, not the poor waitstaff. If you don’t like your food, you politely ask your server to return it to the kitchen, or to adjust your bill, or speak directly to the restaurant owner. You don’t punish your server.

Here in Canada, a BMO Bank of Montreal Mosaik MasterCard study of over 1,500 English- and French-speaking Canadian adults has found that 78% of us regularly leave a 15% average gratuity after dining out.

Other countries can vary:  in fine hotel dining rooms of Brazil, Costa Rica or China, for example, no tip is required because a 10% gratuity is routinely included in the bill. And in most Russian restaurants, you’re warned to tip 10% in cash directly to the waiter (if you just leave it on the table, management might pocket it).

But whether you oppose the practice of tipping on principle or not, you have to wonder at the motivation of the dim bulbs who came up with the very un-Christian-like idea of printing phony $10 bill “tips” to distribute to unsuspecting restaurant servers.

Did they think at the time that this idea was oh-so-clever?  Noble?  Amusing?  Do they congratulate each other with silent smirks whenever they slide a fake $10 bill under their empty plates and scurry quickly out of the restaurant like the hypocritical slime-cowards they are?

A study on this trend was conducted recently by Dr. Michael Lynn of Cornell University. He actually found that Christians are not in fact bad tippers; they gave an average of 17.3% for good service, well within the 15% to 20% norm.

Only 13% of Christians left no tip even for good service. That’s a small minority of Christians, but still almost double the percentage of unaffiliated non-religious diners who left nothing, and more than six times the percentage of Jewish diners who chose to stiff their waitstaff.

So while it is statistically false to say that Christians are bad tippers, it is true that Christians are far more likely to stiff their servers than people of other religious (or non-religious) persuasions.  This is unfortunate, because this reality taints the reputation of all Christian restaurant-goers.

Because of these penny-pinchers, Dr. Lynn adds that waiters are indeed more likely to give bad service to anyone who appears outwardly Christian, or to call in sick for their Sunday shifts.

Some researchers, however, describe the “Sunday effect”, in which Christians tend to act more charitably on Sundays. For example, an interesting study published in the journal Judgment and Decision Making actually suggests that religious people are more likely than non-religious people to respond to an appeal “for charity” only on days when they visit their place of worship; on other days of the week, religiosity has no effect on their desire to be generous. (“When are religious people nicer? Religious salience and the “Sunday Effect” on pro-social behavior”. Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 5, No. 2, April 2010, pp. 138–143)

Maybe this Christian generosity on Sundays hasn’t hit those who think sliding a fake $10 bill under their empty restaurant plate is a decent way to treat others.

14 thoughts on “Waiter’s phony $10 tip includes a religious lesson

  1. 1. Take that phony tip, shred it up and add it to that person’s salad the next time s/he comes in. Spitting on it first might be considered.

    2. Find out what church the non-tipper attends. Go there and put that ‘tip’ in whatever is passed around for tithes.

    3. You could add your own message to the ‘tip’. I can think of several but rules prevail!

  2. Disclosures:

    1) My daughter works as a waitress (and works at being a voice-over specialist).

    2) I’m an atheist.

    I’m not surprised that people who believe in the literal – rather than the metaphorical – stories in the Bible might also hold less than rational thoughts about tipping. But that’s just my irrational self’s way of thinking.

  3. Disclosures:
    1) I never had a daughter working in a restaurant; in fact, I never had a daughter
    2) I have never worked in a restaurant, at least not for pay
    3) I typically tip much closer to the 20%, more if the service is outstanding

    I absolutely do not understand people who do not tip other people who serve them in restaurants. The same concept applies to any other human being who does things for us: cleans our homes, walks our dogs, takes away our garbage, delivers our newspapers or mail.

    How can we not say we appreciate what they do for us? The non-tippers should not accept any service from anyone who they won’t tip. Maybe then they can see how much other people do for them and what little we can do to show our appreciation. Those Christians are very un-Christian.

    • I agree, Dr. Ruth. Many years ago, when my son Ben was in high school, he worked at a local (full service) gas station after school. That was the first time I realized that many people tip their gas station attendants! Ben told me that his regular customers would often say: “Keep the change!” when giving him a $20 bill for an $18 fill, particularly when he had washed the windows, checked the oil, tire pressure, etc. He was absolutely thrilled about each tip! Since then, in a world of self-serve NON-service, I like to “show my appreciation” for gas station employees who go above and beyond the ordinary with “outstanding” service. It all makes for feel-good karma, I think.

  4. Okay, I have to bite here. Carolyn, thank you for bringing this topic up! I have long wanted to have a conversation about it.

    Disclaimers for me include the following:
    1. My daughter has not worked as a waitress. I, however, have.
    2. I am not Christian.
    3. Despite what you will read below, I probably tip more than the majority of people. I usually leave a 20-25% tip, so don’t think I’m tight fisted.
    4. I give, give, give, from the heart, to those in need. Last year I gave a woman I was babysitting for $1,000 anonymously when she was in an auto accident and couldn’t afford even a down payment on another (very used) car. (Yes, you read that right. I was the babysitter.) I also bought a pack of cigarettes for a homeless person who was standing by a public ashtray on the sidewalk smoking butts. These are two extreme examples. Most of my giving is more “ordinary,” but give, I do.
    5. I am NOT a person of “means”. Considering the babysitting, maybe that’s obvious, but I thought I’d be real clear.

    This tipping custom is baffling, arbitrary, and defies logic, and it rankles me every time the issue comes up. Maybe someone here can explain how the explicit rules as well as the rules actually followed make sense. I have posed a short list of questions, in no particular order. Have at it – make my day – clarify for me why any of this makes sense?

    First of all, where do we draw the line? When do we NOT tip? Why? According to whom?

    People tip the waiter in an expensive restaurant handsomely, but how often do employees of McDonalds see any tip at all? Who needs the money more? Do we tip to help out those (presumably) in more need or do we blindly follow a nonsensicle social custom of percents (when it comes to food service)?

    And who came up with this 15% rule? It simply guarantees that those working in the most fashionable, high end eating establishments may well make more money than many professionals, while those serving customers at diners will continue to need food stamps (and a lot of food-stretching know-how) to feed their families.

    What if “the person doing things for me,” to use Ruth’s definition, makes more money than I do?

    Exactly who is included in “the person doing things for me”? I am a (retired) nurse. I am guessing I am not on the list for who to tip. What about doctors? Nurse’s aides? What about the housekeeping staff? Those housekeepers you see? Or will you include those who work in the laundry, also at minimum wages, if wages have anything to do with it? (Do they?) What about the janitor, who we never see but who keeps the restrooms clean? I could go on and on.

    But instead I’ll stop here. It’s late and I’m tired. My thoughts aren’t well organized, but you catch my drift. I guess there is an overall question of why and why not? The answers I get or guess at don’t seem to make any sense. The whole issue is just frustrating.

    Now I have to ask, Carolyn, seeing as how I just did something for you in posting on your blog, (okay, it’s a stretch…), where’s my tip?

    Thanks again for choosing this topic,


  5. Bev-
    you need to realize that the majority of people working in the service industry (at least in the US) make far below minimum wage, have poor or no healthcare and benefits, and that 15 – 20% is what pulls them up to making a modest wage. I think you’d be hard pressed to find the wait staff that makes more than a professional does, and if you do, remember they are on their feet for an entire shift, a lot of them work double, and they have to deal with people and complaints all day long. I highly doubt the professional has a revolving cast of new faces they must please over and over all day every day. This includes people who are down right rude and offensive, as well as people who are great.

    Carolyn –

    On the other end, I am a valet at a high end restaurant where the service is complimentary to our guests. I’m sorry to say that I have been on the receiving end of numerous of these fake $10 bible tracts as well as just regular tracts. We’ve been stiffed by so many Christians, that when we hear a Christian radio station in someones car, nine times out of ten, the tip will be poor or nothing at all. I grew up in a Christian family, and I’ve been out with those people that somehow don’t think they have to tip and it doesn’t paint them to be the horrible people they are. When I see this, I end up tipping for them because I’m embarrassed by their conduct. It makes me think, what would Jesus do?

  6. I must not be expressing myself very well. I did not say I was opposed to tipping. I said I am frustrated by the unfair and irrational rules. My examples were giving a waiter at a high end (say, $150+ dinner for two) a 15% tip,($37.50) while giving nothing to a woman at a fast food restaurant. And even if you tipped her, the meal would certainly not exceed $30 for dinner for two and give her a tip of $4.50. What is fair about that? I don’t not want to tip. I want the tipping to be FAIR. The woman at McDonald’s is surely in more trouble financially, don’t you think?

    The same logic and my same frustration is present in the unfairness of tipping a maid but skipping the janitor and laundry people. Why are we tipping some but not others? Where is the fairness there?

    I didn’t include another aspect here, but why do we only tip people who are doing something for us? Why don’t we give to the people at rest stops and along the freeway who are cleaning up litter? How about store clerks? There are thousands of jobs not in the service industry who are making pathetic incomes with no benefits. Why do we have such an arbitrary system? I can see how it naturally evolved from the combination of good manners in terms of expressing thank you and recognizing that person makes low wages, but we are also rational people, too. I just don’t understanding the arbitrariness of tipping a select group and ignoring others.

    AND, if we tip all those deserving under my criteria, there might not be much middle class left. As I said, there are thousands of people working for far below poverty wages. If I were to give to every one of theme connected with my daily business, like the janitors in my grocery stores and department stores, *Rite Aide kinds of stores and all, what is left in my pocket?

    A last issue I have is my own belief in looking globally rather than with horseblinders and only seeing local need. Why are we spending this tip money to better the life of those who are scraping by when there are millions who are not even doing that? I dedicate pretty much 100% of my charitable money to an organization which has its primary focus of saving lives – literally. Those people are far away, but out of sight – out of mind is a ridiculous excuse for giving generous tips to those who ARE scraping or better, (my hair dresser – we tip all hair dressers, right? – takes himself and his mother on a luxury vacation at least once a year), rather than people sleeping ON THE FLOOR in their straw thatched, one room hut with the dirt floor, which becomes a MUD floor when it rains and the rain leaks through the thatch. Their water is full of parasites and all manner of other life robbing micro-organisms. They have far too little to eat, never mind the right food. These people very often live miles from any clinic and have only their legs for transportation. They don’t even try to reach help unless the need is great and then the very ill villager, carried on a litter of two rough planks, will frequently not even survive the several day journey to see a doctor. Where is the fairness in any of the rules we are living by?**

    I write letters of commendation for service above average. Often. How many do that? I do not imply you can live on complements, but they may well lead to a raise and it’s a way to “tip” the many who never get any actual tips in our arbitrary system of recognition.

    Is it clear that I am not begrudging the poor? Can you see I am doing my best to try to get my excess into the hands who need it the most? If you can’t, then I ask you to just believe me when I say I care and ACT to recognize, thank, and reward locally. including MORE GENEROUS THAN MOST. (Remember the 20 to 25% tips I said I give?)

    Can anyone explain to me how our current unwritten tipping rules are fair? Will anyone address the concerns I have expressed?
    *I have no idea what Rite Aid pays their employees or if they sub-contract janitorial work through a janitorial company, or what. Just an example of a store which seems unlikely to be handing out any big paychecks.
    **To be honest, I have a hard time justifying the home I live in and everything in it, with its enormous relative wealth, to say nothing about squandering my money eating out when I could be using that money to save lives. How many people needlessly die when I buy that darling sweater or go out for dinner to my favorite Indian restaurant? Are there others who ask these questions?

    • Hi Bev – I know what you’re saying. Tipping is a very arbitrary custom in our culture – some get tips, others don’t – and as you said previously, it defies logic. Who knows who made this stuff up? I do love your “letters of commendation” idea and wish we all did more of that in general. I once stayed in a hotel that had a framed letter displayed in the elevator, a thank you letter from a former hotel guest who had specifically acknowledged a number of helpful staff members by name, with specific details of why they’d made such an impact during his stay there. Just imagine what seeing this letter displayed publicly must have meant to those hotel employees day after day!

      As for the “Why?” of tipping, good question! I prefer to chalk this up to just being a custom of the particular society we live in. Different customs in different cultures. Western cultures seem to have adopted this custom as a societal norm. I don’t think we’re going to end it.

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