The Moneyist: ‘Enough touchscreen tipping already! I’m over it’: Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, do I have to tip for coffee, ice cream and takeout? Am I being cheap?

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Dear Quentin,

I recently bought an ice cream cone at a nearby parlor. It’s a big-name joint and I won’t name it here, but suffice it to say you can pay up to $8 for a carryout cone or a cup. The line is out the door, especially in the evening. 

At lunchtime, I like to buy fish sandwiches with chips and an iced tea at my local sandwich shop. (I’m a baby boomer and my doctor says I should avoid red meat, but that’s a story for another day.)

If you order online, they usually have the lunch ready for you when you get there. The online-order service request a tip. Am I a bad person? Am I supposed to now tip before I pick up my own food? I already tip the delivery workers. 

Enough touchscreen tipping already! I’m over it. When is enough enough?

Feeling Short-Changed and Nickel-and-Dimed

Dear Short-Changed,

Tipping fatigue is real, and it’s getting worse.

People want to show their appreciation for good service in restaurants that have been hit hard by the pandemic — many of which closed and/or are still struggling to recover — and those people who literally put their lives in your hands during those early months of COVID-19 before there were vaccines. But we’re now asked to tip in the most unexpected places.

So why do people feel tipping fatigue? Because no one likes to be taken by surprise. When that server swivels the touchscreen around for us to pay — and we are forced to choose between 10%, 15%, 20% or “No tip!” — it puts us on the spot and leaves us feeling exposed. Customers hate feeling wrong-footed. We may smile and coo over the ice-cream flavors, but that tipping option strips us bare.

The last two years have also helped many of us to reevaluate our often privileged place in the world. We’re a culture that has been nudged and bombarded with notifications to want everything now, or we will call your boss and give them a piece of our mind. Tipping was one way for us to show that we do, in fact, care.  And, no, that doesn’t need to include tipping before we pick up an online order.

We’ve all been guilt tipped by technology. Do I choose “No tip” and risk looking cheap or “20%” and feel like I’ve been the subject of a gotcha? Consumers are cajoled by technology into adding another $1 to an ice cream or coffee, while the server pretends not to notice. They notice. (The Moneyist, for what it’s worth, is happy to pay $1.50 for a strong bodega coffee over Starbucks any day.) 

“‘When that server swivels the touchscreen around for us to pay and leave a tip, it puts us on the spot and leaves us feeling exposed. Customers hate feeling wrong-footed.’”

The end result: We walk away licking our honeycomb ice cream, not feeling the tingle of pleasure we had originally anticipated. There is a bitter aftertaste. We may suspect we’ve been silently judged for not tipping an $1 for an $8 ice cream. Or we believe we’ve been tricked into paying more than we would have been comfortable with, if we’d been prepared for that digital swivel.

Americans claim to have become more generous tippers. More than half of customers say they upped the amount they tip during the pandemic, and they generally tip 20% or more, according to a poll by Popmenu, a restaurant software company, this past fall. While most people (61%) said they tip delivery people 15%, nearly four in 10 people reported tipping 20% or more. 

In recent months, a separate report by Square, a financial-services and digital-payments company, suggests that magnanimity is waning. The higher tipping at full-service restaurants during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, which surpassed 21%, has now fallen closer to 19%, the company said. Those more ebullient tippers, it seems, returned to more provident pastures. 

That’s a long way of saying you don’t have to tip when you are standing in line to buy coffee or ice cream. An extra $1 here and there has a meaningful impact for the service staff who are often working at close to minimum wage. At a bar, incidentally, if you want the attention of the barman, it’s $2 for a cocktail or glass of liquor. (When it comes to coat-check staff and bar staff, the $1 tip is dead.)

That said, if you choose to tip the friendly scooper in an ice-cream parlor or the cool barista in a fancy coffee house, make sure you’re doing it because you want to — not because you’re caught off guard. In cities like New York, where the cost of living is high, it’s customary to tip servers 20%. The residents of other cities tip 15%, and Europeans — I’m sorry to say, as I hail from across the pond — only tip 10%. 

My motto: When in Rome, tip like a New Yorker.

Yocan email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at qfottrell@marketwatch.com, and follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitter.

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More from Quentin Fottrell:

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