Sunday, January 27, 2019

Do I tip an instructor even if he'd rather I'd buy his art?

A couple of readers we're calling Newt and Dot recently took advantage of a Groupon coupon they received for a discounted glass blowing lesson. In the class, which was three hours long, an instructor patiently taught them how to create class items ranging from a paperweight to a small bowl. Each item was infused with colors of each student's choosing and they were walked through the process right up until the final firing of the items they created.

The three-hour class for two typically cost $340, but with the Groupon certificate, Newt and Dot split the $193 fee for the class.

"It was a great class," writes Dot. "After the class, I asked the guy if I could tip him."

Given how much time the instructor had spent with them and how much they had learned, Dot's was a reasonable question, but she was surprised by his answer.

"He said 'yes,' but that he'd rather we bought a piece of his glass."

Dot and Newt took a look at the shelf of his glass pieces, which were for sale.

"It was nice enough," she writes, "but I thought it was overpriced for something we really didn't plan to buy. We didn't want to purchase any." One goblet, Dot reports, was $40.

But then she writes that they found themselves stuck with the decision of what to do.

"Are we obligated to buy something since we asked? And if we don't, tip or no tip? And how much to tip him if we do tip him?"

Neither Dot nor Newt were obligated to tip their instructor after their class. That they asked if they could was a thoughtful gesture.

Once they considered his glass pieces for sale and decided they were too expensive, they were not obligated to purchase an item even if it was the instructor's preference over a tip.

If they thought a tip was warranted for the instructor (and clearly Dot did because she asked him if she could tip him), then the right thing is to tip him. They should feel no embarrassment over tipping him rather than purchasing an item. He may have preferred to sell his pieces, but offering a gratuity instead is no insult.

In fact, it might have been a bit more insulting to have asked if it was OK to tip him and then leaving without doing so. It could have sent the unintended message that Dot and Newt simply wanted to know if they could tip him so they could decide not to do so.

I'm no expert in tipping, although I tend to be on the generous side when it comes to tipping service providers, particularly those like restaurant servers who typically work for a lower minimum wage than other workers.

But a 10 percent tip on the cost of the class seems fair enough and it certainly wouldn't have been insulting to offer $20 from the two of them for the $193 course.

"We plan to go again and take another course," writes Dot. That in itself seems the right thing to do for good services rendered. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

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Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin