The Humanist Dilemma: ‘Tis the Season for Figuring out Which Tipping Traditions to Follow

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Must Atheists Give Christmas Tips? I embraced atheism a few years ago, but am still struggling with some Christmas holiday traditions that I no longer wish to observe. One of these is the expectation for extra tipping for service people—hairdresser, personal trainer, newspaper carrier, etc. The tipping is supposedly about the spirit of giving during the religious holidays.

I get my hair cut every six weeks by the same stylist and tip about 20 percent each time. I do not feel I should be expected to tip above and beyond that during a religious holiday season that I do not observe. Consequently, I didn’t tip my stylist more than the usual amount at my most recent appointment, which occurred in December. I hope the stylist doesn’t feel slighted, but this Christmas tipping tradition does not sit well with me. The stylist works in a high-end salon with employer-provided benefits. Why should customers, in essence, be expected to give the stylist an annual bonus?

Just wondering how other atheists deal with this without announcing to service people: “I don’t observe your religious holiday and its tipping traditions.”

—Bah-Humbug to Christmas Tips


Dear Bah-Humbug,

Please, on behalf of all atheists everywhere, do not say, “I don’t tip because I’m an atheist.”

For the myriad ins and outs of tipping, I defer to various websites—or friends—to suggest how much to tip whom, when, and how. This can vary wildly depending on where you live and your lifestyle, as well as whom you consult.

Tipping overall is a very fraught topic for me. It’s a system I wish were more logical and systematic, and less an inequitable cost-shifting from employers to customers. It has long lost its original meaning of “to insure prompt service” and has become more of a tax than a nod for treatment that exceeds adequate. How is the service at a diner worth a tenth of that at a pricey restaurant, simply because the bill is one-tenth as much? Why is leaving “only” 10 percent a way of showing displeasure, rather than leaving nothing if the service was terrible? Some suggest a flat tip rather than percent for things such as haircuts. That makes sense, as I’ve never understood why the service for a $10 haircut deserves more than similar efforts for a $100 haircut—so I’m inclined to be more generous for the former and less so for the latter. You also have to consider your own finances: If you could easily afford a 25 percent tip on $10 ($2.50), but not even a 15 percent tip ($15) on top of $100, you would have to decide whether to forego the pricier service or just skimp on the tip. Unless you’re dealing with a very snooty establishment (or you are a very demanding client), most businesses (and many of their employees) would prefer your patronage over losing you because of a few percentage points of a tip.

I understand that many jobs, such as cleaning rooms and waiting tables, unfortunately get minimal salaries, and employees rely on tips to approach a living wage. Some hairdressers and manicurists actually have to pay the owners to work in their salons. But have you noticed the restaurant checks with suggested tips, where the lowest option is 15 percent or 18 percent, and it goes up from there? Of course anyone can tip whatever they choose, but these suggestions lead people to think 15 percent is a bare minimum. And now there are tip jars at every coffee bar, bakery, deli, and pizza counter, so in addition to paying for your cup, croissant, bagel, or slice the person behind the counter hands over, you’re also nudged to drop your change into the jar. At least I haven’t seen such things at my local grocery or pharmacy—yet. I actually went to a restaurant that had a tip jar next to the cash register labeled “clean the restrooms.” I was more inclined to call the Board of Health than donate to the cause.

But I digress. Your question is specifically about Christmas tipping. In defiance of those who would enforce “Merry Christmas,” divorce it entirely from religion or lack thereof, and think of it as holiday tipping, or better still, annual year-end/New Year bonuses. Kind of like birthday gifts, which come only once a year, but consolidated at one time so you don’t have to recall specific dates. Once you look at it that way, you can think of it as a special yearly reward.

I think this is a good policy with ongoing services such as cleaning your house or caring for your kids, as well as personal trainers, doormen, and building staff. But, as you note, if you tip your hairdresser every visit, there’s really no reason to do anything more in December, unless you want to bestow an extra special gift. I’ve heard some people only tip their hairdressers annually, not at each visit, but that assumes they will still be going to the same person, and their person won’t quit or be fired before December. This puts the hairdresser at a disadvantage: imagine serving someone all year and then leaving in November, having collected no tips all year. In my apartment building, not only do staff wait until January to leave, the summer relief staff returns to open the doors for a couple weeks after Thanksgiving so they won’t be forgotten at tip time.

I believe business owners justify low pay because their employees get tips and make everyone feel they must give more rather than increase salaries. But you don’t have to respond to the manipulation. If you feel you’re being fair to generous, and your letter suggests you are, you don’t need to explain to anyone why you aren’t giving an extra Christmas-or-whatever tip if you opt not to. If you do give any bonuses, hand them over with a “Happy New Year” or deliver them in an envelope with a “season’s greetings” card or a personal note of appreciation.

It’s quite possible that many (most?) other people don’t actually tip as often and as much as “suggested.” I suggest you listen to your conscience rather than Christmas or commercial hype. Tipping, like the quality of mercy in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, should not be strained, but rather given freely and gladly—a heartfelt kindness or “blessing” independent of religious connotations:

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

Ideally, tipping should make you feel good, not goaded.