To Tip Or Not To Tip? How iPads Have Made Tipping On Small Purchases A Lot More Awkward

To tip or not to tip, that is the question.

These days it seems like there’s “tip intimidation” everywhere you turn. Most recently, we’ve seen it in coffee shops when the tablet credit-card reader swivels your way, prompting you to add a dash of gratuity to your morning joe.

I’m sure you’ve seen the new setup. In many cafes they’re now swiping your credit or debit card on an iPad-like system. The most popular is called Square. Easy enough. But when they turn the screen over to you to sign, you not only see a prompt for your John Hancock but for some George Washingtons, too – the Square system has default tip options built right in.

Typically, for transactions under $10, the screen will show “no tip,” $1, $2 or $3 as choices. For purchases over $10, the defaults are “no tip,” 15%, 20% or 25%.

Introduced in 2013, San Francisco-based Square Inc. has created a following among small businesses with its swiveling iPad payment system. The company also makes smartphone credit-card readers and dual-screen registers.

For many customers, the concept of tipping their barista for handing them a coffee and a scone is off-putting. It seems every time we turn around, we’re being asked to tip yet another employee for simply doing their jobs. The swiveling tablet adds to the pressure as the server and the person behind you in line have bird’s eye views of your generosity (or lack thereof).

This new system has left many folks feeling uncomfortable.

“It guilts you into it,” juice bar patron Thom Kenney told the Wall Street Journal. “It absolutely does, because [the servers] are standing there. You want to make them happy.”

“It’s so awkward,” added Connecticut café-frequenter Mina Dimyan. “You press the middle button [for 20%] so you don’t look cheap to the people behind you in line.”

Almost anyone who’s visited a bakery, coffee shop, food truck or other like establishment has probably felt the same way. “I wouldn’t normally tip for someone to hand me a muffin, but I don’t want to look like a cheapskate, so I guess I’ll just do it,” you think. And then later, you’re miffed that your muffin really cost $5.25 instead of $4.25. Ugh. Let’s just hope it was delicious.

Back to Thom Kenney, who hangs out at Squeeze Juice Company (no pun intended). Mr. Kenney isn’t the only one feeling uncomfortable. “Johan Velez, a clerk at Squeeze, said he can’t stand to watch the ritual play out,” reports the WSJ. “After he turns the tablet around to the customer, he averts his eyes.”

“You can certainly walk away without tipping, but it’s hard to do,” said Keir Vallance, a 46-year-old law professor in Saskatchewan.

Daniel Nigro, a Los Angeles songwriter, tips 10% for counter service. He does this by selecting “custom tip” and entering the amount. “I feel like they are watching me when I do it,” says Mr. Nigro. “They’re looking at you.” He believes the amount is fair, but that the clerks expect more.

So how much should we tip for counter-service? The WSJ asked the Emily Post Institute, a Vermont-based authority on manners. What they found was that there is “no obligation to tip counter help… unlike sit-down service by a waiter, where 15% or 20% of the pretax bill is expected.”  The Institute does recommend occasional counter tipping if “a customer is a regular or receives notably good service.”

That’s advice I can get behind. Still, those screen prompts really put a patron on the spot. I miss the good old days of tip jars, especially ones with messages like “Never expected but appreciated!” The new system ups the social pressure. And, according to Michael Lynn, a professor and tipping expert at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, the electronic tip prompts make it impossible for you to “pretend like you forgot.”

Here’s my tip – give the gratuity like no one’s watching. If you would normally tip a buck for your coffee, then go for it. But, if you don’t think a barista should be tipped for walking a cup from the back counter to the front, then hit “no tip.” If someone thinks you’re cheap, so be it. Maybe they’re just jealous because they’re buying into tip guilt, and you aren’t.

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