Friends often ask me, "Should I tip the mailman for Christmas, and if so, what should I give?" The short answers are, "If you want to," and "Cash."
The long answers: postal employees are, by policy, prohibited from accepting tips. This is to protect the business from any perceived conflicts of interest. The reality is, some people tip the mailman and local management tacitly accepts it as part of the Christmas season.
So, if you like the man/woman who delivers your mail … if they do it properly and with cordiality … if you appreciate their hard work in all kinds of weather … then go ahead and tip. If the mailman's a cranky old bastard who makes frequent mistakes, then don't tip. You're not required to tip. But tips are appreciated. That said, let me pull back the curtain a bit, on both sides:
FOR MAILMEN: Customers are unaware of how the Postal Service is run, and they don't care. THEY DON'T CARE. The mail is a background activity in their lives (at best) — some folk perceive us as nothing but unwanted junk and bills that they pay online and other shit that clogs up their box. So they don't care about hard work or weather, and never even think about the mail unless they're expecting a check or a parcel … or if something goes wrong.
Mailmen should think about a similar service in their own lives to get perspective: your cable provider. You never think about how cable TV works or is managed. You just hit the power button on the remote and veg out. But in the background, there are hundreds of people doing many jobs, indoors and out, good weather and bad, busy times and slow times, to ensure that when you put your kids in front of the TV, Nickelodeon will be there. When the cable goes out and your kids can't watch Nickelodeon, you suddenly think about how cable is run, and what utter bullshit has been foisted upon you considering how much you pay for fucking Comcast.
THAT'S how most people view the Postal Service — they never care about it in the least little bit until something goes wrong. Spare me any pedantic comments on how my analogy sucks, since you pay for Comcast and mail service is free; in fact, that only makes my point. Who would PAY to have junk mail and bills foisted on them — especially if the junk mail is addressed to next door?
That's why some customers don't tip you at Christmas: they don't want it, they don't pay for it, they can't choose their service provider or carrier. Their only flashpoint memories of the mail are the injustices of misdelivery and the bullshit circulars. To a person with that attitude, it's laughable to even consider tipping anyone involved!
FOR CUSTOMERS: Well, reading the above should fill you in a little. Mail delivery is free (no tax dollars go to the USPS). But even the kindly mailmen, like in Norman Rockwell's painting here, will know which customers are more likely to tip (older folks and people who own their homes) and which are less likely (businesses and apartment dwellers ... and anyone under age 30).
Even the mailman that you like and call by name will remember if you tip … or if you don't. Oh yes they do. They remember that time in 2010 you forgot to tip, even though you tipped regularly from 2001-2009 and 2011 onward. For better or worse, a regular carrier always has this in the back of his/her mind in December.
Surely that kind of incentive could alter a mailman's service or attitude. It's just nature at work: give a dog a bone, and he wags his tail. A good, kind, and friendly dog that goes the extra mile deserves a bone. That said, if the mailman refuses to do required parts of his job because he's bitter that you never tip — such as not bothering to knock on your door when he needs your signature — well, that turns Xmas tips into bribery, and that should never be tolerated. That's why the post office has a no-tipping policy in the first place.
REGARDING WHAT TO TIP: Cash is king. You can never go wrong with legal tender: ten or twenty is usual. The majority of tips are cash or equivalents (checks and gift cards) but the only gifts that are universally loved are the ones with dead people's portraits on them.
People also leave edible goods, like candy/cookies or wine/liquor. Anything that isn't cash might end up being traded around the Post Office, re-gifted, or trashed. (Some of us never shop at Best Buy and don't need a Best Buy gift card; others don't drink alcohol, or won't ever drink that bottle of funk-ass blueberry wine you give us each year.)
You would not believe some of shit I've gotten as tips: aloe hand lotion, orange and vanilla body wash, dress socks, a box of thumbtacks, a Dallas Cowboys decal. (Seriously? In suburban Philadelphia!?) If you're going to leave anything, just make it cash.
And please put your name/address in the card and on the envelope. A envelope marked "Mailman" with a card signed by "Jim" will turn a kindly act on your part into a detective story on the mailman's end if he can't remember where he picked that one up (or if you left it out on a day when the sub was working).
Mailmen rarely disclose specific details to each other about tip hauls. But I will: despite only about one in seven of my customers being nice enough to tip, I usually end up with fifteen hundred bucks or so. I can't boast or complain about what I end up with since I have no frame of reference. But if anyone out there actually likes blueberry wine, I'll have a bottle to give you soon.