On Gratuity

-by Delilah Webb

As tour guides, we fall in with a family of service industry brethren living on the gratuity of strangers.  Unlike waiters, most of us are compensated by our company with a “living wage,” an hourly rate somewhat above minimum wage that we can count on regardless of tips.  Some tour guides are paid a flat rate by tour, but most of us have a modest hourly rate.  The other portion of our wages relies on our clients, the people who choose to take our tours.   It’s easy to find ourselves in abject frustration with this dependency.  We tell ourselves that surely someone who has paid generously to take his or her family on such an outing has a couple dollars to spare upon their departure.  A customer’s choosing not to tip can be seen as disparaging and disrespectful, or as a sign that our services were somehow not up to the standard they expected.  Time and again, I’ve noticed that my peers’ moods are dramatically affected by the content of their tip basket.  I’ve rarely been similarly fazed.

For fifteen years, I worked a variety of what are generally considered “office jobs.”  As an accountant, I often found myself keeping records and spreadsheets in meticulous detail with the knowledge that the work I was doing was going to be thrown into a black hole.  The majority of fastidious number-crunching I slaved over will never even be seen by anyone else for more than thirty seconds.  The mind-numbing futility of it all inspired all kinds of existential ennui over the years, until my mid-life temper tantrum, when I threw my hands in the air, sold everything and moved to a small, affordable apartment, and reinvented myself as a Boston Tour Guide.

Every day I have an opportunity to make eye contact and greet people from all over the world, and to share with them the city I love, the city I choose to be my home.  It’s a limited, “single-serving friend” relationship that I see as a challenge.  In between the stories I tell about the history and sights of Boston, I have a chance to subtly and subliminally imbue in my guests my real desire: to be remembered and associated with their time here.  It’s that unique chance to be seen and heard and to make myself indelible on the lives of strangers that really fuels my positive attitude toward the work that I do.  Sitting in a never-ending series of office spaces with my spreadsheets never allowed me even a glimmer of such a possibility.

And so, we return to tips.  Never let it be surmised that I don’t need the gratuity, I do, just as we all do.  The difference between a good tip day and a lousy tip day may be completely out of my control, as we’re all familiar with the social and cultural trends in gratuity.   Whether or not my tip basket overfloweth at the end of my shift, I am nearly always able to put things into perspective.  Just as in all aspects of life, the world doesn’t tend to give us what we deserve, it isn’t “fair,” it doesn’t honor the kindest or hardest working or most honorable.  Perhaps we’ve all been given cameos and walk-ons instead of starring roles.  The difference between disappointment and triumph with one’s day can be achieved with attitude.  I treat my tip basket as if it were a report card graded by a teacher whose merit I doubt.  If I get straight A’s, I earned it regardless of the teacher’s opinion.  If I didn’t do well, it’s because the teacher was a distracted under qualified hack who didn’t recognize my promise.  Either way, it doesn’t change my satisfaction with the job that I know I did well!

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