Thursday, March 8, 2007

The Tipping Point

Physicists as a rule are model citizens. Local cops have told me in my very unscientific sampling that when the APS meetings get into town crime declines, the streets quiet down, and there's less trash on the sidewalks. Drug dealers and most other petty criminals generally take the week off or move to more lucrative neighborhoods (except for the pick pockets who find us to be easy marks), the security forces here say.

But the APS isn't good for some of the locals in Denver. Cabbies, restaurant wait staff, and even buskers complain that physicists are bad for business.

"You folks know all kinds of stuff about science, but you don't know nuthin' about tipping," said a clerk at one of the coffee bars in the Denver Convention Center. "Yesterday, we split a total of six dollars in tips between the two of us after a whole day."

She went on to say much worse things about us, which encouraged a physicist standing next to me to pitch a quarter into the tip jar (more out of fear at the vitriol I had managed to unleash in the clerk, I would guess, than out of generosity).

The cab drivers are just as upset. Some of them express their feelings with strings of obscenities that verge on a kind of performance art when I ask them about tipping.

So who tips well?

"Sports fans tip the best," says one coat check girl in the Convention Center referring to groups that come to town for major sports tournaments. "I'd say three quarters of them or more tip, but only about a third of the physicists tip."

My cabbie yesterday told me that the folks in town for a recent electronics convention tipped well, when he could manage to pick one up. A lot of them had private cars or high-priced limos, he said, so he didn't have lots of fares. Most of the people in town for other conventions tipped fine during the day, and got a good deal more generous after dark, when they'd had a few drinks or were returning from dinner or a show.

The fact that more of us tend to stay in for the evenings, and drink with more restraint than other visitors, may be a large part of the problem from the point of view of folks who rely on tips to get by. Because of generally high mathematical aptitudes, sober physicists are less likely to miscalculate and over-tip in the rush to exit a cab or cafe.

But accurate tip calculation isn't the biggest problem, according to one older gentleman working at the Convention Center coat check. Most physicists, he says, simply don't tip at all. "It's a very diverse crowd," he said with a nonchalant shrug, "it might not be their custom, back home. I just do the best job I can, and if I get a tip, that's great. If not, I'll be all right."

Update: Just to show you how inexact a science tipping research can be, Geoff Brumfiel of Nature magazine got entirely different feedback on tipping when he was out at a bar last night.

In case you're confused about tipping, here's a guide to typical tip rates and practices around the world.

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