As someone who lives abroad, I received a piece of soon-to-be important advice before coming to campus: Be prepared to tip everywhere. I was told that it was because the minimum wage was lower for certain professions like waiting tables — a policy choice made with the misplaced hope that tips from customers made up the difference. The uniquely American institution of tipping was jarring.
Despite being forewarned, it still came as a bit of a culture shock when I was prompted to tip before receiving a service. Gratuity was still supposed to be in exchange for good service, right? How am I supposed to know before the service has been rendered? These questions were swirling in my head. But hey, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.
Even so, I decided to read up on this decidedly American custom. I was taken aback to find that tipping was considered “un-American” in the past according to Kerry Segrave’s book “Tipping: An American Social History of Gratuities.” Confused? So was I.
Tipping is said to have started among the European aristocracy to reward servants for exceptional service. This practice was brought to the U.S. by Americans travelers returning from Europe in the mid 1800s trying to seem cultured. However, their initial efforts were met with strong resistance from the general public. This opposition was grounded in the notion that tipping indicated the presence of a subservient sub-class of people. Such class divisions had no place in a society that claimed to value equality and democracy.
How did we get from treating tipping as something antithetical to the American way to something that’s almost obligatory? The Civil War had something to do with it. Despite the end of slavery, racial discrimination in all aspects of civil society was still rampant. Many restaurateurs refused to pay newly minted freedmen wages, delegating the responsibility of compensating them to the generosity of their customers.
This resistance gave the practice of tipping a foothold in the South, strong enough to withstand and eventually overturn attempts to make the practice illegal. And despite evolving racial attitudes, this development was adopted by other restaurateurs who saw the potential for added profits, which spread the practice all over the country.
Tipping culture started as an “un-American” concept; it spread partly because of the aftermath of the Civil War. It shifts the source of compensation for workers from the employer to the consumer, but at least we get better service in exchange, right? Well, not really.
Public opinion seems to support the notion that a tip is customary regardless of service. But the U.S. does not lead the world in the quality of service provided, with Japan, for example, often providing superior service with a culture that forbids tips of any sort.
Before we delve into changing the current system, it is worth pointing out that while tipped professions do have a lower minimum wage of $2.13, if they can’t make at least $7.25 (the federal minimum wage) after adding tips, the employer has to make up the difference under the Fair Labor Standards Act. So a hypothetical increase in the minimum wage would be applied even to tipped professions.
With unclear benefits and obvious disadvantages, I’d argue that it would be beneficial to transition away from the practice of tipping.
There is understandable resistance from employers who wouldn’t want to give up extra profits, but puzzlingly there is often some resistance from employees. Employees such as waiters and bartenders may feel that the financial benefits from gracious and loose-fingered patrons are too good to give up. However, economic research shows that waitstaff and bartenders in states with laws that mandate paying at least the minimum are nearly half as likely to be in poverty when compared to their counterparts in states without these laws. There are also some employers who believe in shifting away from this current system of tips. Many hotels, for instance, are phasing out the practice of tipping.
However, many attempts to eliminate tips often fail because of consumer preferences. Restaurants that eliminate tips, for example, may slightly raise prices to offset labor costs. But consumers see that and fail to account for the savings in no longer paying a tip; the sticker shock is just too much to overcome. In addition, some consumers have a genuine preference for the institution of tipping, and the perception of rewarding good service.
While the current system remains, most of us will continue to tip as we have. It is, however, worth the effort to change this archaic and inefficient practice. Societal attitudes, as the past has shown, will adapt accordingly.
Siddharth Parmar is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.