Why I don’t like tipping

by Emrys Westacott


I dislike tipping. That is, I dislike the whole tipping system. As a card-carrying tightwad I can't honestly say I enjoy leaving tips, but that's not my point. My point is about the general practice, the social institution.

What set me thinking about this was a slightly unpleasant experience I had recently in a café in Quebec City. My wife and I had finished breakfast and after quite a long delay the waitress brought the bill. In Canada these days, as in Europe, it's normal for customers to pay using a portable credit card reader that is brought to the table. These reportedly reduce credit card fraud by eliminating the opportunity for dishonest wait staff to “skim” the credit card information while out of sight of the card owner. The bill is displayed on a screen along with various tipping options. These vary according to the machine, but a typical range of options is: 10%, 15%, 20%, custom tip, no tip. Usually I tip 15%, but on this occasion, partly because of the long delay in getting the bill, and partly because I felt the waitress had from first to last been unpleasantly condescending, I tapped the 10% button. She was looking over my shoulder (another thing I had against her), and immediately asked me if I was dissatisfied in any way with the service. Being taken by surprise, and also being a wimp, I answered “No.” She then told me that in Quebec it was normal to tip at least 15%. I said, “Oh, I didn't know,” and left the tip at 10%. If I'd been less of a wimp I would have explained my dissatisfaction and complained about her looking over my shoulder. Then again, if I'd been even wimpier I would have adjusted the tip according to her recommendation.

Tipping is a peculiar institution. Whether you leave a tip is optional, and there are many circumstances where you would suffer no adverse consequences (other than possible feelings of guilt) should you not tip: for instance, when you check out of a hotel, alight from a taxi, or eat at a restaurant you are unlikely to revisit. If we were nothing but little carbon-based bundles of rational self-interest, as some economists prone to abstraction have at times assumed, tipping would be much less common and might even never have become an established custom. In some places—Japan, Finland, South Korea, for instance–it isn't. And even in places like the US, where tipping is widespread, the conventions aren't especially consistent. Many people leave a tip for the person who cleans up their hotel room, but not for the person at the reception desk who checks them in and out. They add a tip for their hairdresser, but not for their dental hygienist.

So why do we tip? There are a host of possible reasons:

– we feel a moral obligation to boost the income of poorly paid service providers

– we wish to avoid disappointing the provider's expectations

– we wish to express gratitude for a service well rendered

– we want to ensure good quality service in the future

– we don't want to look cheap

– we don't want to feel cheap

– we want to appear generous

– we want to feel generous

– sheer conformism

On any particular occasion when a tip is given some combination of these motives will be in play. But what actually motivates people to tip is a psychological question. The normative questions are these: Should one tip? If so, when? How much? And is the tipping system as a whole desirable? The last question is the one that most interests me.

Ask people to justify the practice of tipping and they'll usually offer one or more of the following arguments.

– Good service deserves to be rewarded.

– Good service should be encouraged.

– Poorly paid service providers need tips to raise their income to an adequate level.

These arguments are pretty weak

All of us regularly receive all kinds of service from other people. Some of these people are well paid for what they do (dentists, plumbers), some are poorly paid (supermarket workers, gas station attendants), and many aren't paid at all (family, friends, colleagues, neighbours, strangers). Assistance provided by people in the last category—for instance, a motorist who stops to help you change a tire, a colleague who advises you about office politics, a neighbor who shovels your driveway without being asked—is most often, and most appropriately, rewarded by sincere thanks. To offer a monetary reward in such cases could be inappropriate, although if occasion arose you might buy the motorist a drink, or bake the snow shoveler a cake. It's hard to see why a few specific kinds of service should be singled out as tipworthy.

The claim that tipping encourages good service is frankly risible. In Japan tipping is not the norm; it can even be viewed as insulting; yet the service, from what I've heard, is usually excellent. Bar staff in American bars, who receive tips, provide the same level of service as their counterparts in British pubs, who don't. If we really thought tipping encouraged better service we'd tip our physicians, nurses, teachers, park rangers, librarians, and political representatives. (I have read of a Saudi prince promising the doctor who was to deliver his first child a BMW as a reward if he delivered a boy: but even in this case I doubt if the tip made much difference.) A perfectly adequate and surely preferable way to encourage good service in any professional is to promote a culture in which people bring to their work a sense of professional responsibility and pride. Most people who perform their work well do so because they undertake it with this attitude. (The fact they do it for pay doesn't tell against this claim; working for pay is compatible with a strong professional work ethic.)

What about the argument that some workers rely on tips since their wages are so low? Obviously, the claim made here is true. But it doesn't constitute an argument in defense of thetipping system; it's simply a reason for holding that we ought to tip certain service-providers. If we don't tip them, they'll have trouble paying the rent. One could make a similar argument that those of us who can afford it should make charitable donations to help the hungry and the homeless. But this isn't a defence of a system that leaves millions dependent on charity.

There are some obvious objections to the tipping system.

– It allows employers to underpay their workers. (In all but seven US states, employers are allowed to pay tipped workers below the normal state minimum wage. Nineteen states allow employees to pay their tipped employees the federal minimum wage for tipped workers, which is currently $2.13 per hour.)

– It accustoms us all to the idea that it's OK for some people to be paid a pittance.

– It reinforces social distinctions (first, between people who work for tips and people who have jobs that are properly paid; secondly, between those who tip and those who depend on another's generosity) Tipping's anti-egalitarian tendency was one reason why it was frowned upon in America prior to the twentieth century.

– It sometimes creates unnecessary stress for both tippers and tippees (as in my encounter with the waitress in Quebec): the former worry about what they should tip, the latter about whether some problem beyond their control might reduce their income.

– It's irrational, since the size of the tip is often determined not by the actual service rendered but by how much is being spent. Why should a waiter be paid more for bringing me a steak than for bringing me a salad, or for opening an expensive bottle of wine rather than a cheap one?

– It's inconsistent: Why should someone who brings me a cup of coffee be tipped, but not someone who fills my gas tank, checks my oil, and cleans my windscreen?

– It monetarizes a relationship that would be healthier and pleasanter without this feature. Waiter

– It encourages servility, or at least a degree of inauthenticity in the person hoping for a tip. Skeptics on this point should look at an article by Michael Lyn of Cornell University in which, on the basis of empirical research, he quantifies the percentage increase in the size of tips induced by fourteen different actions on the part of the wait staff. These include touching the customer (42% increase); telling a joke (40%); squatting down next to the customer (20% for a waiter, 25% for a waitress); forecasting good weather (18%).[1]

These objections to the system vary in weight. Taken together, though, they convince me that it would be a fine thing if tipping was scrapped, service personnel were adequately paid, and customers charged upfront for the cost of the service. There are no doubt many worse things about American capitalism than the tipping system; but arguably it plays its little part in facilitating exploitation and consolidating inequalities.

So whenever I go out for a meal, take a taxi, or stay in a hotel, I find myself in the awkward position of feeling morally obliged to act in a way that supports an institution I disapprove of. And, the problem seems to be getting worse, not better, since the tipping zone is expanding: tip jars are now common on many food service counters. So how might the system be changed—by which I mean done away with.

There are no impending signs that the tipped workers' bosses are about to get a collective attack of conscience and decide to compensate their employees adequately; nor that tipped workers are likely to rise up to demand that the system be scrapped; nor that customers everywhere will try to force the employers' hands by withholding tips. As I see it, there are two faint possibilities. One is that a few entrepreneurs will make “no tipping” a feature of what they offer (as is already the case with one or two high end restaurants in New York), that this will prove a successful marketing strategy and so gradually becomes the norm as others follow suit. Market forces often fail to give us what we really want, but this would be a case where they might do so.

The other possibility is that our politicians will pass laws requiring employers to pay everyone a decent minimum wage. If that happened, there would be no need for a tipping system; tippers would feel less obliged to give, and tippees would be less desperate to receive. Unfortunately, our politicians tend to mainly enact policies that benefit those who are able and willing to give them very big tips indeed. And this group doesn't include too many of those who have to depend on tips for their livelihood.


Notice, I prefer to think of political campaign contributions and other offerings as tips, not as bribes.And I have no wish here to get into the thorny question of the difference between a tip and a bribe. It is interesting, though, that a recent study by researchers at Stanford shows that, in general, countries where tipping is more common also have higher rates of corruption.[2] (see graph)[3]

[1] http://tippingresearch.com/uploads/managing_tips.pdf

[2] Torfason, Magnus Thor, Francis J. Flynn, and Daniella Kupor. “Here's a Tip: Prosocial Gratuities Are Linked to Corruption.” Social Psychological & Personality Science (forthcoming) [http://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/9491448]

[3] I am indebted to my Everyday Ethics class at Alfred University for a recent stimulating discussion on the ethics of tipping that helped me clarify my thoughts on the topic.