Getting Tipsy A quick guide to holiday tipping etiquette

Getting Tipsy

New York is an expensive town–on that point there can be little debate. Regardless of your means, sometimes it can feel as though everybody from the waitress at your favorite coffee shop to the person who sacks your groceries is trying to get every last nickel out of you. Tip jars are everywhere, sometimes decorated with winsome appeals for change ("Tipping is good karma!"), sometimes just sitting there expectantly, waiting for you to pony up. The holiday season compounds the issue: there are gifts to buy, travel accommodations to book, parties to attend, inclement weather to worry about… and the anxiety that many of us feel when we try to figure out what kind of tip to give the people who (hopefully) make our everyday life a little easier: our building staff.

Clearly, a reward for work well done is a welcome gift, especially at this time of year. Supers and handymen often find themselves under sinks or in sub-basements at odd hours, patching frozen pipes or coaxing temperamental boilers back to life. They shovel snow, scatter salt, and do a score of other tasks made that much harder by snow, ice, and the bitter cold. Doormen and lobby attendants wait patiently, bundled up to their ears against the chill, ready to help you with your shopping bags or call you a cab. Not only is it customary to show your appreciation for the work your building staff does for you and your neighbors, it’s just good manners.

"But," you may ask, "why tip at all? Opening the door and helping residents out is the doorman’s job–he gets a salary already." A good point, and one that bears closer examination.

Tipping Through the Ages

Though there is some disagreement about the origins of tipping, most historians agree that it’s likely the practice began during the heyday of the Roman Empire with rich, landowning Roman Citizens throwing a few coppers to the peasants who served them as a gesture of the master’s wealth and generosity. It has also been suggested that "tipping" was the term used by feudal lords in Medieval Europe to describe their practice of throwing gold to their serfs as they passed on horseback; the gold appeased the peasants and assured the nobleman safe passage through the crowd.

Though noblemen and ladies no longer ride through the streets on horseback, casually tossing gold pieces to the ragged masses, the practice of tipping has stayed with us. The word "TIPS" in modern parlance is actually an acronym for "To Insure Prompt Service," and the list of people who are commonly tipped includes hair and nail salon workers, bellhops, cab drivers, newspaper delivery people, porters, valets, bartenders, and, of course, restaurant wait staff.

With the advent of modern multi-family housing, apartment building staff joined the tip list. As far as your building support staff is concerned, the word "TIPS" could very well stand for "Time-Intensive Perpetual Service," since many maintenance and support workers often live on-site and are essentially on-call 24 hours a day. Though you may tip your super or your doorman throughout the year for doing various small jobs for you, it’s good manners–and a gesture of appreciation for all they do–to give your building staff a little something extra during the holidays. According to the guru of etiquette, Emily Post, holiday tipping is a way to "say ‘thank you’ to those who have provided service to you throughout the year–letting them know you’re pleased with what they have done for you."

Holiday tipping etiquette depends on a number of variables. According to Post’s Web site (www.emilypost. com), the main factors that help determine the gifts you give your building staff are:

• How pleased you are with the service

• The frequency of the service or how long you’ve known the person

• Your budget

• Your regional customs

• The type of establishment

(a deluxe vs. a moderate building)

By The Numbers

The following chart should help you figure out who gets what. The various amounts quoted below are averages of suggested figures published by Emily Post, the folks at tipping.org, and Jean Chatzky, editor-at-large of Money magazine.

• Apartment Building Superintendents: $25-$100. According to Chatzky, There’s a pretty wide range here, depending on the services offered in your building and how much the staff is at your beck-and-call during the year.

• Doormen: $25 and up. Tipping.org’s holiday tipping guidelines page says, "Take into consideration how nice they are to you, if you get lots of visitors or deliveries, and if they’ve actually opened the door for you always. To maintain this level of quality service, you have to pay for it."

• Porters: $15-$30. These people have a difficult, sometimes unpleasant job. If your kid dropped Cheez Curls all over the lobby carpet, or your dog committed an indiscretion at any point during the year, you owe it to your custodian to remember.

• Handymen: $15-$30. This is an instance when the amount of your tip is directly proportionate to the amount of work you’ve requested from your building handyman during the year. If you just greet each other in the hall, the lower end of the range should suffice. If you’ve gotten him out of bed in the dead of night to fish your cat out of the garbage chute… ask yourself how much such a task is worth to you, and show your appreciation accordingly.

• Garage Attendants: $10-$25. If you use your car at odd hours, or if the attendants in your building’s garage take special care of your vehicle or have it ready for you when you get there, an acknowledgement of their attention is in order. You may tip each attendant individually, or earmark a half-month’s parking rate to be divided among the garage staff.

• Garbage Collectors: $10-$20. If your building has a contract with a private waste management company, $10 to $20 is the customary amount for holiday tips. City employees, on the other hand, are technically not allowed to accept tips or monetary gifts over a certain amount, though many do.

• Mail Carriers: Same as Garbage Collectors.

There is a host of other people you might also want to remember during the holidays–personal trainers, nannies, housekeepers, baby sitters, your stylist–and the range of what’s considered appropriate for these professionals is wide, and left mostly to personal judgment. Regardless of the cash value of your gift, however, Chatzky stresses the importance of "[making] sure that you present your tip as if it is an actual present. Put it in a nice card, write a personal note, and deliver it personally rather than, for example, taping it to the garbage can. And cash is appreciated, rather than checks."

In what can sometimes seem like a very uncivilized city, it’s important to remember to make a gesture of civility and appreciation to the people who make it their business to lend you a hand and make your life easier–and the holiday season offers a perfect opportunity to do just that.

Ms. Fons is Associate Editor for

The Cooperator

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3 Comments

  • how about managing agents for co-ops? i remember there was a managing agent that even wrote a memo to the board that it was customary to tip them and gave a figure that he requested. i have always been against tipping managing agents. especially when they were doing a crappy job.
  • My building tips our managing agent as well as other managing agent staff.I do not think it is a very wise thing to do as now it equals in the thousands of dollars a year. Does anyone else tip their manaaing agents?
  • I thinking the Tipping System is out of control! The staff should get a bonus through the Building Board. I've heard of cases where a owner had not tipped some of the staff, and the staff members decided to provide shoddy service just to the this particular owner / tenant. I can see tipping the Garage Attendant, and anyone else who does not make minimum wage. Moroever, not everyone living in a high rise is wealthy. I hate the fact, that even the cashier in the local deli has a tip cup. Why? I paid for the cup of coffee. Why should I have to tip this person, just because they are underpaid? Many years ago, people did not tip in the UK, however, it is catching on very fast.