Tipping has gotten weird

by Brian on June 4, 2023

in Covid-19,Food,Technology,Travel

I first noticed it on a trip to the U.S. when we were at a self-checkout counter. 

There were no human clerks nearby, yet the machine in front of me demanded to know how much I’d like to leave as a tip. 

20%? 25% A custom amount?

The same dilemma occurs when there is a human in front of you, but all they’re doing is taking your order – like at a Starbucks – and there is nevertheless a tip “recommendation” option on the checkout screen. 

Tipping in the 21st century has gotten weird.

I grew up with a simple formula: Did a service provider improve your experience? Then leave a tip. Taxi drivers and wait staff at sit-down restaurants fit this category. 

The counter person at the Dunkin’ Donuts stand at JFK Airport? Not so much.

That’s easier said than done when the fast-food worker is standing right there. Are you really going to choose “none” or a smaller-than-recommended custom percentage and risk a potential stare of disappointment…or disgust? 

“I tend to see it and just give,” Meeka Smith told the Los Angeles Times when she recently placed an order at a counter-service spot that already adds a 15% service charge to all purchases. The screen subsequently “suggested” another 10% tip.

Tip creep, emotional blackmail or a social tax?

The custom of tipping started in Europe as a way to ensure good service. Tips were typically given in advance. Indeed, some historians say that “T.I.P.” is an acronym for “To Insure Promptitude.” 

Tipping made its way to the U.S. in the 1850s when wealthy Americans traveling in the old country discovered it and imported the custom to demonstrate their worldliness. 

The concept met strong opposition. 

In 1904, the Anti-Tipping Society of America asked that its 100,000 members pledge not to tip anyone for a year.

A decade later, William Scott, in his 1916 anti-tipping screed, The Itching Palm: A Study of the Habit of Tipping in Americawrote, “Tipping, and the aristocratic idea it exemplifies, is what we left Europe to escape. It is a cancer in the breast of democracy.”

Tipping in the U.S. eventually took off, but for a less aristocratic reason. 

Following the abolition of slavery after the Civil War, newly freed slaves were often only able to get jobs in the service and hospitality industries. But many employers refused to pay them a decent hourly wage, if one at all. Relying on tips was the only way these employees could reasonably earn a living.

There have been several attempts in recent years to break our addiction to tipping. 

Danny Meyer is the CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group in New York. In 2015, Meyer eliminated tipping at nine of his restaurants. The prices were higher, but you’d no longer be enlisted to “make up” a server’s insufficient salary.

Another benefit: The new higher tip-included revenue could be shared with the kitchen staff. Meyer discovered that his customer-facing staff were earning two-and-a-half times what back-of-the-house employees made.

Yoni Van Leeuwen is one of the owners of Crave, a popular Jerusalem-based eatery that launched with a Meyer-inspired no-tipping policy.

That was, until Crave’s endeavor in equality ran afoul of the local tax authority. 

In Israel, 17% value added tax is added to nearly all purchases. That doesn’t apply to tips, although employees are expected to declare their tips and pay regular income tax on it. 

When Crave added the tip into the total price, the tax man wanted its 17% on the entire amount of the bill. 

“We couldn’t come to an understanding,” Van Leeuwen told me. “We had to go back to the way most of the world works.”

Meyer, too, has backed off

In 2020, he told his staff that Union Square Hospitality would abandon the no-tipping policy when its restaurants re-opened following the lockdowns of the early days of the pandemic.

“We don’t know how often people will be eating out, we don’t know what they are going to be willing to pay,” he told The New York Times. “We do know that guests want to tip generously right now.”

Tipping varies depending on where you’re located.

When I first arrived in Israel 30 years ago, tipping a taxi driver was optional. Sometimes the driver would refuse your money. (Some still do.) If you tipped in a restaurant, 10% to 12% was enough. 

In Japan, South Korea and China, tipping is considered downright rude, where attempting to give a gratuity suggests that an employer does not value its employees enough to offer sufficient pay. 

Economists have long struggled to explain tipping. 

After all, if you only tip when the bill is presented, you have no ability to proactively improve service. Moreover, if you’re a tourist and you will never visit a particular restaurant again, logically, “there’s no reason to tip,” writes Ofer Azar, a professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who has studied tipping culture extensively. “Yet this prediction is sharply violated in practice.”

Psychologist Ernest Dichter explained why.

“It is embarrassing to have another person wait on you,” he wrote in 1960. “The need to pay, psychologically, for the guilt involved in the unequal relationship is so strong that very few are able to ignore it.”

Or, as Benjamin Franklin noted during one of his stints in Paris, “To overtip is to appear an ass. To undertip is to appear an even greater ass.”

While I’d prefer having the gratuity baked into the bill, I’ll nevertheless strive to avoid being an ass and tip an appropriate amount.

Just don’t “suggest” that I tip when ordering an old-fashioned glazed Dunkin’ Donut.

I first railed against over-tipping at The Jerusalem Post.

Photo by Sam Dan Truong on Unsplash

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