Pi Attitude Zone: Ethics & Altruism

Today’s Tip: Don’t

Why do people give tips to servers in restaurants?  Why do they feel guilty if they don’t?  And why are both servers and managers in restaurants so committed to – and adept at –  ‘guilting’ people into tipping?

Blame the employers, mostly.  Tipping in America started back in the Gilded Age, with well-heeled travelers returning from Europe, where of course ‘the help’ felt lucky to have a job at all, and pathetically grateful for a gratuity.  The tipper just felt magnanimous.  American state legislatures initially tried to stop the practice.  But restaurateurs liked the idea of passing on a portion of their labor cost to the consumer, lobbied hard for it, and got their way.

When examined critically, the whole tipping thing seems unjust, divisive and counter-productive.  It favors the employees with the closest access to customers, like waiters, maitre d’s and door staff, and often freezes out equally hard-working catering staff, bus-boys and washer-uppers.  Pooling tips leaves workers vulnerable to management predators who “manage the tip-pool for them”, and who frequently help themselves to a chunk of it – which is not at all what the tipper had in mind. 

Indeed, instead of rewarding hard work, tipping arbitrarily determines part of employees’ income according to random factors like how much wine guests order and whether they want dessert or not. People’s take-home pay should be determined more rationally than that.

Tipping can also spoil a good meal, ending it with intrusive behavior by servers and nervous doubts among bill-payers as to what size of gratuity to leave, so as not to appear cheap to the waiter -- or indeed to their guests.  The original concept of an extra discretionary award for above-average service is long gone.  Now it’s all predicated on percentages over gross.  Large “statutory” and “suggested” tips are widely printed on the check these days, usually ensuring that people will be too embarrassed to challenge them.

It should not be taken for granted that employers can use tipping conventions to withhold a living wage from their employees.  But that’s pretty much how it works.  Average hourly wages for non-supervisory employees in American manufacturing are $19.26, but this falls to $11.75 for hotel and restaurant workers – those who depend on tips. Hence their interest in a minimum wage hike.

Worst of all, tipping actually perpetuates the idea that “servers” and “service workers”  are somehow inferior to other people.  Which, when service jobs like waiting table are by far the most numerous in today’s America, is flat-out silly.  Service industries represent nearly 70% of national GDP.  Attitudes and conventions are about due for re-appraisal.

Pi says: if you enjoyed reading this piece, maybe you should tip.  Exactly:  it’s a ridiculous concept, isn’t it?

Zone: Ethics & Altruism Country: USA / North America Product – Services