Consumer

Being too polite to your waitress may cost you money

Nov. 3, 2011 at 7:20 AM ET

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Is your coffee too cold? Then tell your server.

Telling your waitress that the lukewarm coffee she just brought is OK might cost you more than aggravation — it might cost you money, too.

Consumers who lie to avoid confrontation are more likely to reward the people who have irritated them, scientists now say. So in the case of the server who brings unpalatable food or drink, that can translate into a bigger tip, said Jennifer J. Argo, co-author of a new study that explored the impact of these little consumer white lies.

Argo and a colleague set up a series of experiments to see whether people’s discomfort with lying made them more likely to try to make it up to the person they had lied to, even when the lie was to cover up displeasure, according to the study published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

In one experiment, study volunteers were given a free — high quality — manicure. But in the middle of the procedure, the manicurist disappeared for 10 minutes without explaining why or apologizing for her absence. Ten minutes is just enough time for people to become annoyed at having been left at loose ends, said Argo, a professor of marketing at the University of Alberta School of Business.

Volunteers were asked if everything was OK at the end of the manicure. Those who lied and said everything was fine were willing to tip more than those who said they were unhappy about the 10-minute wait.

As it turns out, waitresses and waiters didn’t need a study to tell them about this little quirk of human nature. After completing the study, Argo and her co-author, Baba Shiv of Stanford University, did some field work, questioning wait-staff at some local restaurants.

“Servers clearly knew that this was going on,” Argo said. “And they understood that the best way to get good tips was to always ask if everything is OK.”

"Most consumers have told an inquiring server that their cold meal is fine, a hairdresser that they like their unexpected 'new look,' or a friend that his/her too-snug jeans look great," write authors Argo and Shiv. But these little white lies have negative repercussions for the people who tell them, the researchers say.

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