Richard Cohen on Tipping: To Ensure Proper Servitude

by Corey Robin on October 21, 2015

Richard Cohen has a…I’m not sure what to call it. Formally, it’s an oped in the Washington Post.* In defense of tipping. In reality, it’s more like an overheated entry from his diary. In which Cohen confesses that his feelings of noblesse oblige toward waiters are really a cover for his fantasies of discipline and punish. Where there’s no safe word. Except, maybe, “check please.”

The context for Cohen’s musings is that Danny Meyer, the restauranteur, has decided to eliminate tipping at his restaurants. This has prompted a spate of articles, praising Meyer and criticizing the anti-democratic elements of tipping. Enter Cohen.

I love tipping.

The practice originated with European aristocracy…

And he’s off. Now remember, in DC parlance, Cohen is considered a liberal.

There are four moments worth noting in the piece. First, this:

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.

There’s the democratic nod to Cohen having once been a waiter. From Lincoln to Cohen, how many relationships of deference in the United States have been justified by reference to one’s own humble past, by invoking this escalator of social mobility, in which one begins at the bottom, serving a superior, and arrives at the top, being served by an inferior?

There’s also that invocation of loyalty. Though the capitalist workplace is often described by its defenders and critics as a glorious (or gory) space of untrammeled self-interest and personal advance, for many of its denizens, it is a domain of loyalty (and subordination). For Cohen, that loyalty is never to one’s co-workers; it is either to the boss or to the customer.

Finally, there’s that claim that when he was a waiter, Cohen “never felt I was groveling for tips.” No, I’m sure he did not. (Just as I’m sure he doesn’t feel as if he’s groveling for a different kind of tip when he sucks up to power now: once a courtier, always a courtier). There’s a reason Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, chose the waiter as one of his paradigmatic examples of “bad faith.” Wrote Sartre: “I am a waiter in the mode of being what I am not.” Cohen was/is a waiter in the mode of being what he is.

Here’s the second moment of Cohen’s piece:

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.

Again, notice the sublimation that goes on in the capitalist workplace. For most observers, I think, the relationship between a waiter/restaurant and a customer is a relatively straightforward exchange of money for service (the tip, as Cohen and others like to say, stands for “to insure promptitude”). But notice the affective element that gets introduced here: the waiter becomes Cohen’s agent, his wingman. In that exchange of money for service a bromance develops, a rather one-sided bromance, in which Cohen gets to imagine that this man—my guy—cares about him, really cares about him, as a self, a soul. And that he, Cohen, cares about the man. My guy. That this bromance is consecrated by the exchange of money is incidental or ornamental.

Or maybe not, as Cohen makes clear in this third passage:

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.

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?

The real signification of that exchange of money is that it allows Cohen—and not some impersonal mechanism like the market or the law—to distribute benefits and largesse to the staff. Partly because he wants to recognize the help, to lift the individuals among them above the dross and drab of democracy, where everyone is treated equally and no one gets noticed. Tipping is about making distinctions, about awarding distinctions, which are threatened by those egalitarian rules of equal pay for equal work.

The real object of that art of distinction, however, is not the waiter doing an excellent job but the tipper who is recognizing and rewarding him for it. Notice the ostentatious subject of virtually every single sentence in this passage: “I hesitate…I like tipping. I like to make a difference…I make… I’m not flipping silver dollars…I am a healthy tipper…my way of recognizing a good job….I care…I notice…I recognize…Why would I want…”

In the act of dispensing rewards, Cohen gets to play the part of a lord. Money is the means of his conveyance. Circulating it advances his cause, elevates him above the crowd. Dispensing money puts his signature on the otherwise drab world of democracy and exchange.

And elevates him a particular sort of way. The last passage:

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.

Reminds me of that passage from the ancient Laws of Manu, which de Maistre loved to cite:

Punishment is an active ruler; he is the true manager of public affairs; he is the dispenser of laws; and wise men call him the sponsor of all the four orders for the discharge of their several duties. Punishment governs all mankind; punishment alone preserves them; punishment wakes, while their guards are asleep….The whole race of men is kept in order by punishment.

If only someone would write a book about all this.

*H/t Andrew Seal.