Can anyone explain to me why we observe this absurd practice known as tipping? Many other countries have simply done away with it by paying service staff what they’re worth, but we in North America cling to this flawed practice even though…
It’s arbitrary. There’s no rulebook for who deserves a tip vs. who doesn’t. It’s generally accepted that waiters, bartenders, baristas, doormen, and taxi drivers should be tipped, but why not other similar job? Why not hotel clerks? Why not bus drivers? Why not bank tellers or flight attendants or nurses? Even after years of participating in this economy and tipping constantly I still don’t understand the rules fully, and can’t imagine tourists visiting North America could figure it out. All I know is that we’re meant to feel deep shame if we don’t tip, regardless of how good or bad the service was. I steadfastly refuse to tip bathroom attendants for handing me a towel I could have reached myself, but still find myself skulking from the room quickly without making eye contact.
It needlessly complicates things. Customers have to search their pockets for an appropriate tip. Businesses have to use up scarce counter space with a tip jar. Waiters have to stand idly at a table while a customer mentally calculates 20% instead of waiting on someone else. A barista has to watch the line grow while every customer punches in 3 unnecessary steps on the POS device, essentially doubling the time for every transaction.
It actually slows the adoption of more efficient technology. Many of the afore-mentioned industries, which value fast customer turnover, have been reluctant to add speedier contactless payment terminals to their checkout process because employees are afraid their tips will disappear. Early trials of MasterCard’s Paypass terminals in Canadian coffee shops resulted in the machines being mysteriously unplugged, since customers — who were in the habit of simply leaving the small change from each transaction on the counter as a tip — had no change left over after tapping their card to pay. Employees, no longer seeing the change in their tip jars which would supplement their minimal pay, simply sabotaged the machines. Some coffee shops have found ways to address this, including Starbucks’ new automatic tipping feature in their mobile app, but that’s a classic example of simply paving the cow path.
Companies use it for nefarious means. Because of course they do. In Canada the minimum wage in most provinces hovers around $10/hour (some have slightly lower levels for alcohol servers) but in the United States 19 of 50 states actually pay $2.13 per hour, leaving servers to make up the rest of the $7.25 Fair Labor Standards Act minimum wage through tips. Essentially, this forces the burden of paying the employee a fair wage onto the consumer. By the way, 16 of those 19 states voted Republican in the 2012 election. Take from that what you will.
All this said, I’m not going to stop tipping. It’s unfair to the people currently earning minimum wage (or worse) who would bear the entire brunt of my little protest. But as long as businesses and merchant associations are able to screw employees with their tipping policies they won’t give it up, so at some point governments have to make it an unattractive option for merchants. It doesn’t have to affect the bottom line of a single business — they can increase their prices by 15% to cover the wage difference, just as some restaurants have already done.
Cover photo by Marcin Wichary, used under Creative Commons license