Dear Liza,
I am hoping that you can help resolve a disagreement between my partner and me about tipping in shops with counter service. She thinks that it is appropriate to tip—and tip generously—whenever there is a tip jar out. I feel that a tip is merited when you are getting food brought to your table or occasionally if someone makes you a fancy coffee. An important note is that she grew up in the US, whereas I am from the UK. So many places now have tip jars. I sometimes tip in the supermarket if they bag my groceries. But should we tip at the local bakery when they slice the bread for us? What about in the local bodega where I serve myself soup? We both have professional jobs and disposable income, and we both identify as democratic socialists. I am all in favor of the redistribution of wealth, although by nature I am frugal. I am also concerned that employers might use the tips as an excuse to pay workers less. Can you please help resolve this domestic quandary?

—Parsimonious Brit

Dear Parsimonious,

You’re both right. In the United States, tipping is essential when someone provides a service that is prolonged and personalized: bringing food to your table throughout a meal, cutting your hair (if the stylist doesn’t own the salon), doing your nails, delivering pizza to your door. For these jobs, the wage is low, and the level of service you receive is intense. In cafés and supermarkets, even where a tip jar is provided, tipping is optional because, as you note, the level of personal service you receive is minimal. However, the worker’s wage in such places is equally low. Your partner is right to feel that, for people getting by in reasonable comfort, it is both friendly and redistributive to tip even in these ambiguous settings—and I, for one, always do.

I share your objections to this system, Parsimonious. I believe, as you do, that people should be well compensated by their employers and not have to hustle the public every minute to make ends meet. A person just trying to buy a cup of coffee and get through her day should not be penalized for the institutionalized Scrooginess of the employer class. But by refusing to tip, we don’t pressure employers to pay their workers better.

You and your partner could simply agree to do whatever each of you is most comfortable doing, since neither of you is wrong. That might be the easiest way to resolve the practical side of this dispute. But if you share finances, it may feel more pressing to reach an agreement. Perhaps you can work out a policy that satisfies you both—for example, never tipping in the supermarket or for a simple croissant handoff but always when a barista or bodega worker has made coffee or a sandwich for you. Some concrete guidelines could help you avoid annoyance with each other, especially when you happen to be standing together at the bakery cash register.

Dear Liza,
I am confused about the boundaries of cultural appropriation for teens. I am a white female who lives in the conservative Deep South and attends a private school in a Protestant environment. Very few people of color attend the school. At our last class period, we had to turn in our textbooks, and a few of the guys (but especially one) tied their textbook covers into do-rags, pretended to shoot people, threw gang signs, and tried to Crip-walk. I became upset and talked to them about it, but they said I was the one in the wrong because I interpreted their actions in a racist way. The teacher, who is white, condoned their behavior. She said, “Boys do that sometimes.” Now I think that I might have overreacted. What would be the best response to their behavior?

—Woke Southern Belle

Dear Woke Belle,

For some white boys, the most stereotypical and violent expressions of black masculinity have outlaw cachet. And thanks to the cultural moment we’re in—a battle between liberal norms and presidentially endorsed white supremacy—so does racism. But it’s unlikely that your classmates would have acted this way in a school attended by significant numbers of black kids; in such an environment, the white boys likely would have known that their behavior was racist. At the very least, they probably would also have feared (correctly) that such wannabe antics would reveal them to be the white nerds that they actually are.

In a school setting without the possibility of such social consequences, it was up to the teacher to set limits. Saying, in effect, that boys will be boys was a “complete missed opportunity,” says Alexandre Jallot, a high school teacher in New York City. Not only was your teacher the only person with any authority in the room; Jallot, who is black, points out that it would have been powerful for the boys to hear that what they were doing was wrong from “someone who looks like them.” The teacher should have stopped them during their performance with the textbooks, told them that their shenanigans were not acceptable, and arranged to have a longer talk with them later on about why.

You’re the only person in this situation who did the right thing, Woke Belle. And paradoxically, you’re probably the only one who feels bad about it!

For the future, Jallot says, you might suggest to the administration that they convene a schoolwide assembly on racism or incorporate some more thinking about race into the curriculum. The fact that these white kids don’t attend school with many people of color allows their behavior to go unchecked, but someday (one hopes) they will have to live or work in a more diverse environment. For the sake of the rest of the world—and for their own good—it’s urgently in their interest to develop better social intelligence. Your experience illustrates just one of many reasons segregated schooling is bad for everyone.

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