Richard Cohen Wrote a Gloriously Stupid Op-Ed About Tipping

In Depth

Yesterday, Richard Cohen wrote a piece about tipping. Oh boy. Strap in.

For those unfamiliar with the seeping, infected verbal wounds collected works of Richard Cohen, he’s the Washington Post columnist responsible for such luminary insights as the idea that the alleged U-Va rape incident was a result of not enough “real men,” who sagely noted that interracial relationships make normal people want to throw up, who was the first to reveal the shocking (and real!*) connection between twerking and sexual assault, who thinks racial profiling is an excellent anti-crime measure for society in general and New York City in particular, who actively stanned for World Wars, who pointed out the important issue of Richard Cohen’s inability to get laid by hot 20-somethings because James Bond, who adopted the wholly novel position that hey, maybe the government should lie to us more often, who…

…holy hell, I had planned to reference every instance of Cohen stupidity a GM site had written about in the past, but if I do that, we’re going to be here all day. It’s probably best to call it now. It’s also worth pointing out (for a variety of reasons) that Cohen is listed as a “liberal” columnist.

That WaPo could employ writers like Alexandra Petri, Rachel Feltman, and Clinton Yates at the same time as Richard Cohen (who, it must be noted, is somehow not the worst op-ed writer working for the newspaper) is a testament to…well, something, I’m sure. Perhaps the inherent insanity of attempting to simultaneously represent all philosophical constituencies, from people who enjoy humor (Petri) to people who want to read good sports/culture reporting and opinions (Yates) to people who want to learn science things (Feltman) to people with the critical thinking skills and general philosophical flexibility of a rotary saw (Cohen).**

Cohen has now turned his massive intellect (no) to the subject of tipping, and…whoo. I mean…wow. Let’s just get to this:

Danny Meyer, the New York restaurateur, may have started something. Last week, he announced he would eliminate tipping at his 13 restaurants and raise his prices. There followed a plethora of editorials and op-ed columns, most of them in support of the new policy, some of them pointing out — as you might have guessed — that tipping is anti-democratic, sexist, racist and, if it does not in some way contribute to global warming, that’s only because the study has yet to be done.

Marvel at this intro. Behold its magnificently smug yet subtle (for Richard Cohen, anyway) dickishness. Take particular note of the insinuations that sexism, racism, and classism are overblown in today’s society. Witness how it cloaks itself in forced jollity, exactly like your one asshole uncle who ruins every Thanksgiving. Richard Cohen: The Internet’s Shitty Thanksgiving Uncle. He should have business cards made.

Still, I love tipping.

I really wish I could actually bet on things like “Richard Cohen definitely loves the concept of tipping.” Bookmakers would not accept bets on that particular line in a million billion years, but still.

The practice originated with European aristocracy, whence the term itself comes — “To Insure Promptitude,” thus TIP. The Financial Times editorial where I found that much-disputed fact

Oh, for the love of…how many times do we have to go over this? “Tip” does not stand for “To Insure Promptness” or “To Insure Performance” or “To Insure Prompt Service.” It has never stood for any of those, ever. The idea that it ever has is an apocryphal revisionist linguistic effort by those who require their history to be tidy and easily-consumed. In short, it is horseshit.

By the way, if you click that first link, it goes to another WaPo piece where the writer, Maura Judkis—to her credit—references this canard as a “story.” To Richard Cohen, this apparently translates “a fact,” because he…read it somewhere, I guess? Man, he’s going to be really, really disappointed when he finds out Spider-Man isn’t real.

Quick rewind on that last quoted sentence:

The Financial Times editorial where I found that much-disputed fact went on to call the practice a “demeaning custom,” “outdated” and, just for good measure, “obnoxious.” That was just one of five articles the newspaper devoted to the subject. It has not been so worked up since Scotland threatened to bolt the United Kingdom.
Why? Well, there is much to criticize about tipping. Waiters usually do not share their tips with the kitchen staff, including the all-important chef. (There are, apparently, two classes of chefs: celebrity and impoverished.)

We’ve damn well been over this, too, Richard. The reason kitchen employees aren’t legally allowed to share in tip pools in most states is because in nearly every state, kitchen staff actually make an hourly wage, while servers do not.*** As we’ve been over, God, too many times to even list, servers’ paychecks say “this is not a check” on them. Yes, technically restaurants have to make up the difference between their tipped wages and the minimum wage, but hahahahaha, good luck getting a restaurant to actually do that.

It is true also that female waiters not only have to put up with the occasionally obnoxious behavior of co-workers

Oh good. Noted gender issues expert Richard Cohen is going to talk to us about sexual harassment in the workplace. I’m sure this will go well.

but also sometimes have to wade into a dining room fetid with men who think a good tip permits a sexist comment (or a leer). A New York Times anti-tipping article says that “nearly 37 percent of all sexual harassment claims to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission come from restaurants.” Maybe so, but eliminating tipping will not eliminate boorish behavior.

Technically correct, in the same way that slathering oneself in sunscreen in preparation for a beach outing does not eliminate the risk of sunburn. It’s still a pretty good idea, though—especially for someone as blindingly white as Richard Cohen.

There are, I grant you, some problems with tipping,

Such as “all of the problems.”

but it is, overall, worth keeping. Like almost everyone else in America, I was once a waiter — and a busboy, and a short-order cook and a dishwasher — and I never felt I was groveling for tips. I did feel, as a friend told me before I went off on a wait job, “Remember, you work for the customer, not the restaurant.” If tipping doesn’t quite shift loyalties so neatly, it does put loyalties into play.

Some of you might think Richard Cohen is lying when he says he has been a server. I would disagree. See, every server knows that one former or current member of their profession unable to see the forest for the trees when it comes to the tipping system. Sometimes they’re talented servers in good situations who couldn’t give less of a shit about anyone but themselves. Sometimes they are people who you secretly suspect accidentally try to wash their hair with toothpaste at least once a week.

I couldn’t speculate about which group Cohen belongs to, other than that it is the second one.

The waiter is my guy for the duration of the meal. He’s my agent. He looks out for me and, if he does a good job, I look out for him. He has an incentive to give me exceptional service, not some mediocre minimum, to ensure that my water glass is full, that my wine is replenished, to make sure that the busboy does not prematurely remove the plates — that I am not hurried along so that the owner can squeeze in another sitting. The waiter is my wingman.

*warning klaxons blare and red lights flash across the bridge of the NC-1702 Doucherprise. A panel opens above the Captain’s chair and the ship’s commanding officer is crushed to death beneath the weight of a pile of crimson pennants*

I hesitate to mention another reason I like tipping. I like to make a difference, not just to be a bit of a big shot or be noticed or appreciated, but to give some of what I make to those who make less. I’m not flipping silver dollars into the air or hurling twenties around with abandon, but I am a healthy tipper (once a waiter, always a tipper) because this is my way of recognizing a good job. A healthy tip is like a pat on the back.

Please explain to the class a single reason you cannot still do this if servers make a living wage. No one—at least, no one worth listening to—is talking about actively making tipping illegal, just about removing it as a necessary component in sustaining a server’s livelihood and as a required aspect of the social contract. No one’s stopping you from leaving something extra for a good server who already makes a living wage, if that’s what you want to do; there are other countries that operate on that model, and they seem to be doing just fine.

The tip is recognition of service well-performed. It shows that I care, that I notice — that I recognize what the restaurateur way back in the kitchen does not because he cannot. Why would I want to treat everyone as if they were equally good at their tasks? I like to reward, but occasionally I like to punish. Make my meal an ordeal, make me anxious about whether you got the order straight, and no 20 percent tip will come your way. Maybe that’s not democratic, but a meal is not a town hall meeting.

Emphasis mine. “Occasionally I like to punish.” “OCCASIONALLY I LIKE TO PUNISH. Holy Popesicles. I can’t even really describe what happened to my body when I read that sentence other than that it looked something like this, except with more flailing.

The last paragraph makes a lot more sense in context now, doesn’t it? Granted, it’s not unusual for horrible customers to think like that, but it’s exceedingly rare for them to actually say it like some sort of extremely low-rent Bond villain. Kudos to Cohen for his honesty, I suppose?

No. Kudos to Cohen for absolutely nothing, ever.

Tipping, I regret, will go the way of the tie or the dinner jacket.

…do people not wear ties any more? It’s a credit to Richard Cohen—a bizarre credit, to be sure, but a credit nonetheless—that he’s capable of transmogrifying the rage I felt at the last paragraph into utter bafflement with a single sentence.

It’s complicated. It needs to be calibrated. It’s something you learn how to do over time, and when, as a kid, I used to watch my father tip the waiter and the mai tre d’, I felt that mastering this would be almost as difficult as fatherhood itself. I’ve got most of it down now (I still don’t know what the mai tre d’ gets) — and I consider it both a responsibility and a privilege.

I don’t even have a snappy comeback for the fact that Richard Cohen thinks tipping is as complicated, confusing, and consequential as safeguarding and shepherding the life and growth of a miniature human being. I mean, what the hell do you want me to say to that? I just…you win, Richard Cohen. You’ve broken me.

Alright, Richard: all you have to do is land this one with a snappy ending. Just a pithy one-liner that doesn’t sound completely hackneyed will more than—

I could go on, but my table — of course — is ready.

Swing and a miss.

* Not real.

** If this last description is too wordy for you, you can probably just replace it with “Baby Boomers.”

*** In the states where servers are required to be paid at least the actual minimum wage, it is legal for the back of house and front of house staff to pool (except in California)—as well it should be.

Image via AP.

Contact the author at [email protected].

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