That Awkward Moment When the Server Is Hovering Over the Table to Get the Tip

In America, we’re not so sure about servitude.

The debate currently raging over what and how to pay restaurant workers is one living drama that proves our ambivalence on a national stage. Closer to home (and work), we act it out at the end of every sit-down restaurant meal when the server leaves the guest alone with their money and judgment, the better to decide how much to tip, and to leave however much or little money as the “last word” of the service exchange.

Since the beginning of recorded gratuity in America, table service protocol has spared all of us the ickiness of giving and receiving tips in each other’s presence. That’s more than a century of basically getting undressed in the dark together. It just ended.

Goodbye, Stripe-and-Swipe, Hello, Chip-and-Dip?

Thursday, October 1, 2015, is a big public date for the U.S. adoption of what’s called the EMV standard, by which the data on a credit card is embedded in a chip and not on a magnetic strip.

It’s a big date for banks: you may have received one of the new chipped cards they’re sending to replace more than a billion old-school debit and credit cards.

It’s big for retail businesses: your restaurant, for example, may be comparison-shopping new terminals to integrate with your POS system.


It’s frankly ballooning for the payment services industry, which we can hold responsible for TM of the wrong I (dry, noncommittal explanations of why EMV matters) and not enough about user experience.

Anyone who has traveled to Europe or even Canada in the last five years can testify to just how different it feels to use a chip card. In a restaurant, the guest gets the bill and tenders a card. The server brings a brick-sized terminal to the table, inserts the card, and hands all that to the guest, who is offered a chance to add a tip, then either signs or, almost invariably in Europe, types in a PIN number. We don’t do the PIN thing here yet; issuers figured the change to chips would make them unpopular enough without forcing consumers to remember a four-digit code, so our newly inconvenient cards aren’t as safe as they could be, nor are they much more use in the rest of the world.

Like if you heard of Belgium

The fact that we’re years behind other countries is more than a good reason for adopting EMV: It’s actually the reason why we have to. When other nations switched to the more secure chip- or chip-and-PIN cards in response to mounting credit-card fraud, opportunists shifted their beady eyes to those that hadn’t yet. By 2014, the U.S. accounted for a quarter of the world’s credit-card transactions but almost half its fraud. When hackers hit the “gold rush” on this final frontier, it galvanized banks into preventive, or some might say defensive, action.

Terminal Meh

Don’t look for a sudden bankcard lockdown, though. October 1, 2015, is barely even a deadline. In the “before” picture, banks could shift some of the costs of fraud to consumers and retailers. From the 15th on, the liability for fraud falls to whoever of the merchant and the card issuer has the lesser technology. Thus, per the U.S. Small Business Administration: “if someone pays with a fraudulent EMV/chip card, and a business can only process magnetic stripe cards, then the business could be liable for that fraudulent charge–a liability that used to be on the banks.”

This change does not even constitute a legal threshhold–just some reassigned incentives. They call it a liability shift. But hey, if that term’s too frowny-face? According to Carolyn Balfany, Head of U.S. Product Delivery for MasterCard Worldwide, “It’s is not actually to shift liability around the market. It’s to create co-ordination in the market, so you have issuers and merchants investing in the migration at the same time. This way, we’re not shifting fraud around within the system; we’re driving fraud out of the system.”

As far as progress to date is concerned on this fraud-eradicting coordination that could make it a good thing to try safer payment systems kind of like other places have–and pretty soon–let’s just say folks still have lots of questions.

How Do You Like Me Now

As restaurants come on line with EMV, many servers have to wonder how the switch to, in effect, tableside tipping, will affect their take-home.

What is the effect on guests of being prompted by a terminal–or, horror of horrors, a server–to leave a tip? Of having to key in the tip themselves or tell the server how much to key in? Of the server standing by the whole time?

We were as surprised as any to learn that pay-at-the-table only seems daunting if you’ve never experienced it–or so our informal research would indicate. “Think about it,” a local bartender told us. “We already get tipped with the customer right there.” (Bars will have other special challenges dealing with the end of the tab as we know it thanks to EMV.)

So do Canadians. “The server is there,” one Toronto restaurant guest said, “but they’re not exactly watching you. And everybody knows they’ll find out how much you tipped them before long anyway. Plus, you can always leave cash.”

Finally, as slowly as the transition to EMV is rolling out, Apple Pay and other so-called mobile wallet solutions may have broken all the ice by the time restaurants get around to full chip-and-PIN compliance. Most of those leading-edge payment devices prompt for tips–even in traditionally nontipping contexts like retail stores–and many present a selection of tipping options. Then there’s the relative mindlessness of one-touch payment.

All this, according to the Washington Post, is making people tip more and more often. Indeed, we learn, “A combined 41 percent say close proximity to the server/cashier while entering a tip amount would ‘probably’ or ‘definitely’ increase their likelihood to tip.”

Less fraud, better tips, no “EMV-arrassment” necessary? We should have made this transition a decade ago.

Elaine Evans
Elaine Evans Elaine Evans is thrilled to blog for KaTom, where her work in restaurants, bars, catering, and artisanal food has caught up at last with her career in journalism and public relations writing.
  1. October 29, 2015 at 2:38 pm, Dennis Duffy said:

    Just last night, Maggie and I were wondering why the US hadn't swirched to those gizmos. We were terrified the first few times we had to use one (in Spain), but were now here to tell the tale.