Literally. I'm about to give you a tip on tipping. I have waited tables and essentially been in the restaurant business for four years. (I'm an amateur to those who've been there much longer, I realize this.) I believe I know a thing or two about tipping and when it is and is not appropriate. As a side note, I believe everyone no matter your financial background should get to experience waiting tables in the hungry public's eye for at least a weekend rush. It's no joke and definitely gives you insight on what the world expects from you and what you can expect from yourself. I've found out a ton about my own personality I didn't know when I was waiting tables at my first job. It is sometimes awful and sometimes wonderful. It depends on your personal perception of yourself and how you convey that.
I understand the argument for and against tipping, I truly do. I have the same debate with myself when I go out to eat. But a few things will make it easier and there's no need to pick a side. Whether you do or don't, do explore why and why not for yourself as I have and get a grasp on the fact that service workers and tips are something here to stay.
Be nice. Damnit, just be nice. I mean this in the entire sense of the phrase. Be nice to old people, young people, your kids, strangers, and animals but also the people you go to for a service. Waiters and waitresses are generally pretty pressed to do a great job and polite and/or courteous patrons make it easy for us or at least much more pleasant. Being nice is completely free and honestly, if you're nice to me and decide not to tip, I may be confused (like someone leading someone else on...) but I'll get over it. I'm the type of person who'll clean up my mess (i.e. stack my plates, replace the table setting, etc.) because it's so much easier and while I'm chatting, why the hell not?
Tips are just that - tips. I do not believe gratuity should be mandatory but I do know that some nights, it has gotten me home. I've mentioned this before. A slow night can be a total buzz-kill when you're on an empty tank, literally and figuratively, and are sort of depending on your tips to get you through the week. I get that and have totally been there. But reward on occasion. If a waiter or waitress did an exceptional job, tip accordingly. Most of us make below minimum wage (at one place it was 3.25 hourly, another would have been 2.75, approximately) and we might get reprimanded for tips we didn't make because the company/restaurant has to pay those wages in full. A tip is a tip and is better all around but do not feel obligated.
Do I think it should be automatically figured into the bill? No. If it was, why not go ahead and post a cover charge for the restaurant. I do think that the general 20% covers a great meal, more for better service, less if the waitstaff was rude or otherwise unpleasant. I've said it before and I'll say it again - treat your waitstaff and general service people like sons or daughters (stay with me) and it'll work out for everyone. I don't mean tell them they're out past curfew, but do consider that most of us are working our way through college (hello, student loans) and have kids or are otherwise trying to become productive members of society that we are constantly being pressed to be. Tipping is so much bigger than dollars. It's gratitude and financial stability for some.