This morning, while at one of the many rogue Los Angeles coffee shops where waiting 10 minutes for a coffee — even an iced coffee, black — is standard, I finally saw a guy lose it. After several minutes of waiting for his coffee, he cut back into the front of the line, reached into the tip jar, fished out $1 and retrieved it. “I’m taking this back,” he said, before angrily storming out. The barista looked annoyed, but unfazed. “He said he’s taking back his tip,” she announced to her colleagues, then shrugged, and kept the line (glacially) moving.
It was simultaneously satisfying and perplexing at the same time. Having now stood in thousands of lines waiting on goods to be delivered at the speed at which I have paid for and been advertised to expect, nothing sucks more than bad, slow service from workers who obviously couldn’t care less. Yet, having worked at fast food joints, bars and restaurants, nothing is worse than a bad customer who has no idea how badly these places can be run and how poorly you are paid, and who takes it out on you in tip form, because you are the only point of contact for the experience. I tip because I believe tipping is good practice, and it’s never occurred to me to take it back, even when the service is poor.
In other words, you can reach into the jar and take your tip back?! This behavior presents a highly specific ethical conundrum: what happens when you have cash tipper’s remorse?
Usually, customers want their tips back when they realize they overtipped — and those stories almost always revolve around a restaurant where mandatory gratuity is included in group settings. The customer absentmindedly tips on top of that. They realize it later, and feel gypped. Then there’s the occasional drunken $1,000 tip that the customer realizes was dumb after they sober up the next day. It’s tough to find stories of customers who soberly, willingly tipped, then got poor service after the fact, and wanted it back because they felt in the end that no tip was deserved whatsoever.
Cash tipper’s remorse is a specific regret you can only feel in places where you’ve tipped at the point of purchase, but not before the actual service experience has been completed, because you then have to wait on the food or drink. You already dropped the money in the jar as a gratuity, but then you either wait too long or the food or drink is wrong or not as expected, and you find yourself seething about that tip. But then what?
Most people would just leave, not actually argue over an excessive tip, and probably quietly decide to never patronize the establishment again. Or, you could do the best practice here and ask to speak to a manager, explain the bad service, and hope that they either comp you in some way or offer to refund your purchase.
But some customers are so unhappy with the service that they feel they have no recourse but to take back that cash tip in real time. This raises an interesting question: for how long after the money leaves your hand does it still “belong to you”? Doesn’t taking it back count as stealing? After all, the money has left your hand willingly in an optional transaction.
“I did that once,” a woman told me online, about grabbing a tip back from a coffee place’s tip jar. “No, it doesn’t count as stealing. I took my money back and told them point blank, looking them directly in the eyes, that his service truly sucked.”
Technically, it is stealing, though. A gratuity is a gift, and the law protects the gift-receiver from having to give it back so long as it’s given under three conditions: you mean to give it, you give it, and the recipient accepts it. After that, you can change your mind if you like, but you can’t legally demand it back, whether it’s a tip or a rare book or a used diaper collection. Nor do they legally have to give it to you.
I asked friends who’d worked as servers and baristas if this had ever happened to them, and how they handled it. “I was working concessions at the theater one night when a lady left me a five dollar tip on four beers, popcorn, bunch of candy,” a guy I know told me. “She was the first customer and hers was the only tip in the bucket. Her husband sees the tip, grabs the tip and then replaces it with a smattering of change. He turns to her and says, ‘We don’t want to set a bad example.’ I was too shocked to punch him in the face like he deserved.”
It’s a particular pain point for the customer, because that tip is given before the service is fully rendered, which means it’s basically insurance that the service coming will honor the understood transaction: quick, efficient, polite, accurate. But oftentimes, the person who took your order is not the person preparing that order. If you thought the visible transfer of the dollar from your pocket to that jar would light a fire under anyone’s ass, you’d be wrong. In other words, you’re just tipping because that’s the etiquette. It is no way a guarantee the service will be ideal or even acceptable, or especially great, just because you dropped a fat tip.
I couldn’t find a ton of anecdotal examples of customers going vigilante to even out the scales of tipping justice. But a veteran barista told me he’d actually be more than happy to return that cash tip from the jar if a customer snagged it greedily back up. He agreed it’s technically stealing, and a total jerk move, but that it’s absolutely not worth the hassle of arguing over. “It’s a buck,” he said. “Whatever will get them out of the store.”
And if they asked for it back directly before pilfering through the bills and change to retrieve their own contribution? “I’d probably openly laugh and give it back to them,” he said. “If a customer tells me they’re upset and don’t like the service, I’d be happy to give up a buck to never see their face again.”