Lewis: A zero-sum game

In my travels, I have been to well over 50 countries, and no place felt more “foreign” to me than Japan. It’s not bad, just different. If you want to get a glimpse into Japan, I recommend the movie “Lost in Translation.” While it’s hilariously funny for those who have been to Japan, it may prove challenging to follow for those who haven’t.

During my first trip to Japan, I took a taxi from the airport to the hotel. Back then, there were no credit cards in taxis, so I paid cash in Japanese Yen that I had exchanged at the airport. The driver returned my change on a nice tray. I took a couple of bills and left the rest as a tip. I exited the taxi but seconds later the driver was running after me with the tray in hand.

I tried explaining that the money was a tip, but he was having none of it, so I took the change and walked away. It turns out that, what I thought was a kind gesture, was actually offensive in Japan. I felt terrible, and from that point forward I researched the customs of every country before I visited.

In Japan, people believe services come with a predetermined charge, and individuals are honor bound to provide their best service in exchange for their pay. Many countries have different tipping cultures far less generous than the U.S., but most will simply smile at the clueless American and take the money. Not in Japan.

There are times when I wish our culture was more like Japan’s. I recently wrote a column expressing my concern that tipping expectations had gotten out of hand. With all of the recent angst about “tip fatigue,” it was surprising to see that our state legislature passed a bill that requires all companies to allow their employees to accept tips. Kudos to Gov. Polis for vetoing it this week saying, “this is not an appropriate area for state legislation.”

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There are many reasonable situations where a company may choose to prohibit tipping. While tips are used to reward good service, they also are used as a bribe to receive special treatment.

During my time working in Massachusetts, I would frequently drive into Boston for customer dinners, which were usually at the Capital Grille. The parking around the restaurant was impossible. They offered a valet, but the garage was blocks away, so it would take forever to get your car when you came out after dinner. Wanting to get home after a long day, I started “tipping” the valet a little extra to leave my car right out front.

In most cases, these “bribes” are minor. We might want a better table at a restaurant or to get extra towels from the maid but, if all constraints on tipping are removed, there is the potential for abuse, and it makes sense that companies might wish to prohibit it. Should I be able to skip the line at the airport check-in by slipping the attendant some cash?

I think the most important thing to realize about these new tipping expectations is that it is a zero-sum game. Most everyone has a budget, and if you spend more in one area, then you will spend less in another.

I know I have altered my behavior due to tipping costs. For instance, my wife and I used to go out for coffee a couple of times per week. It was expensive already, but with tipping effectively increasing this price, it became too much. We stopped and saved over $1,000 per year! It is a simple economic reality that price increases, in any form, affect demand.

I also go less frequently to establishments where I feel intimidated to provide a tip, especially when it is expected upfront for minimal service. The emotional stress of being scoffed at by a clerk when not tipping simply isn’t worth it.

The legislature’s time would be better spent crafting consumer protection against some of the more aggressive approaches that are effectively forcing people to tip more than they want. For example, recommending exorbitantly high tip amounts and burying the “no tip” option three levels deep on the tip menu should be prohibited.

If we must have more tipping, maybe it’s time to start tipping consumers when they do all of the work, like at self-checkout machines. If I scan my own items and bag my own groceries, how about the machine spits out a few bucks for a good job well done?

Mark Lewis, a Colorado native, had a long career in technology, including serving as the CEO of several tech companies. He retired from technology and is now writing thriller novels. Mark and his wife, Lisa, and their two Australian Shepherds — Kismet and Cowboy, reside in Edwards.

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