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COSTLY LESSONS IN TIPPING

For a moment there, Miss Manners thought she saw a chance to give the custom of tipping some serious analysis. Maybe a 15 percent to 18 percent chance. Who, besides tax-dodgers and bill-dodgers, wouldn't like to see the tipping system exposed for the farce that it is?

Others, on both sides of the tip, are wary of being cheated. In all the transactions in which tipping is customary -- transportation, public accommodations, personal services -- there is someone thinking "Are they going to stiff me?" if not "How much more can I make them give me?" and someone else thinking "Am I being a sucker?" if not "How little can I get away with?"

What might have been the catalyst for reform was a case earlier this fall, when a customer in an upstate New York grill was arrested after leaving a 10 percent tip on the pizza bill that he and eight others had run up. The restaurant had stated that an 18 percent tip was mandatory for parties of six people or more.

The charge for the food was $77.43. The charge for failing to leave a larger tip was theft of services. So the case hinged on whether tipping is voluntary or mandatory.

The judge ruled in favor of the defendant. Miss Manners does not disagree with this verdict, as the society does make a hair-splitting distinction between an added-on "service charge," which is part of the bill, and a tip, which is understood to be voluntary.

But she wishes there had been some way to recognize that the restaurateur was also justified in his assertion that the society also recognizes that restaurant servers do work largely, if not entirely, on the expectation of tips. Knowing this, polite people leave at least the conventional tip (a 15 percent minimum before tax is added) regardless of the quality of the service. (If it is bad, they should complain, as in other cases when people do not perform adequately that which they are hired to do.)

The fact is that what we have here is an incoherent system. In what sense do the servers work for the restaurateur if he does not pay them wages?The just solution is to have employers pay the employees, passing on the cost to customers frankly, by building the amount into the cost of the dishes ordered.

Cold truth on presents

Dear Miss Manners: When is it appropriate or inappropriate to have a housewarming party? I am recently divorced and am buying my first home. As with many divorces, we split most everything, and I cannot afford to replace many needed items at this time. What is the protocol? Am I supposed to register for items that I need or ask for gift cards or just take what I can get?

Gentle Reader: What exactly is warm about this plan? You have gotten right down to the business of whether you can make your friends help furnish your house.

Not politely -- and not reliably, even if you are willing to be so impolite as to indicate that your welcome is dependent on their not showing up empty-handed. Some may want to give you presents, others may feel they have to do so, but the last time Miss Manners checked, presents were voluntary, not some sort of tax that a host can levy on guests.

Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners at MissManners@unitedmedia.com.

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