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Tipping's twists and turns

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Question: My wife and I dined at a restaurant in Los Angeles where the menu noted that it pays a living wage — about a 15% surcharge. But I was unsure how much to tip. Without the living wage, I would have tipped my usual amount. I favor the custom in most countries we visit, where there is no tipping but the staff is adequately paid and has benefits such as health insurance.

Dave Middleton

Rancho Mirage

Answer: Before answering a question on tipping, I've learned to put up the heat shields in anticipation of the flame-o-grams that arrive whenever the topic comes up. That's because it's fraught with emotion, never mind political overtones, economic and sociological implications and, perhaps above all, confusion.

This question is all of that and more, and especially the last.

Even the term "living wage" can be a problem in the U.S. "The term 'minimum wage' fell into disrepute during the Reagan years," said George Hoffer, who teaches economics at the University of Richmond in Virginia. "It had a negative connotation. And so 'living wage' started as a substitute," with a more positive connotation. But now it's often confusing because some locales have a by-law living wage that's not the same as the minimum wage.

The minimum wage still exists. At the federal level, it is $7.25 an hour. In California, it's $8 an hour. In some places, if you are a tipped employee, the federal wage is $2.13 an hour and has been since the 1990s; tips are supposed to make up the difference. (California does not have a tipping wage, so the state minimum applies.)

In some places or communities of workers, a "living wage" is mandated. That wage is calculated based on what it would take to "cover the basic housing, food, transportation and other key essentials we have to pay for," said Linda Bradley, an assistant professor with the department of family and consumer sciences at Cal State Northridge.

The living wage probably does not take into account how many people are in the family, Bradley said. A living wage indicator developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that a person living in Los Angeles County would need $11.37 an hour for that amount to be a living wage but would need $22.95 if the household included two adults and two children.

Other issues you might need to consider in tipping: Does the food server split the money with the rest of the restaurant staff? Does the restaurant operate on "postage stamp" pricing — that is, are menu items uniform throughout the country, as they are in some chains? (The postage stamp reference comes from the notion that it costs the same to mail a letter to Sacramento as it does to Chicago.) If it is postage stamp pricing, are you tipping adequately for your area?

Head spinning yet? If not, consider this from Holona Ochs, co-author of "Gratuity: A Contextual Understanding of Tipping Norms From the Perspective of Tipped Employees." "About 90% of Americans tip and in many more circumstances and a larger percentage than anywhere in the world," said Ochs, an assistant professor in the political science department at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

We do leave tips because we want to reward for good service or maybe make up for economic differences, right? Those may be reasons we tip, but the "primary reason is because it's expected," Ochs said. "It's a really high rate of conformity to a social norm. People don't want to be inappropriate. They don't want social punishment … don't want to be seen as a jerk."

And now to keep yourself out of the jerk category, you're probably going to have to ask hard questions of your food server to determine what's right. This requires a degree of intimacy with someone you don't know. You probably don't ask those questions of people you do know and yet you almost have to talk about their money situation before you give them any of yours.

That's repugnant on its surface, but, on the other hand, it does give you the opportunity, if you're a traveler, to interact with someone on the local level. "Part of the joy of traveling is eating the food, but the other joy is getting to know people," Ochs said. If your comfort level doesn't involve having discussions in person, call ahead and ask.

This may be yet another complication of travel you didn't bargain for, but it's part of being a responsible traveler. "Yeah," you're likely to retort. "Responsible for the well-being of the world." Not quite, but would that be such a bad thing? Before you answer, let me get those heat shields up.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.

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