Tyranny of Gratuity

Before signing the check, it’s worth calling the feudal practice of tipping into question

I’m writing this in India. Indians probably didn’t invent tipping, but they’ve certainly discovered a serendipitous number of ways to accept and extract below-the-line considerations. They have as many ways of slipping cash as they have deities. This is a traditional hierarchical society that is maintained by a filigree of obligation and patronage. No one accepts a tip with silkier aplomb than an Indian.

I don’t want to blackguard India. It is a nation I love and admire, and the tipping here isn’t special or singular. It would be a special and singular society where you weren’t expected to tip, so that would be Iceland. Scandinavians in general don’t expect it or indeed take to it graciously. Everyone else in the world does. But should we?

Those who solicit tips know why they do it, but can the same be said of those who tip? The obvious answer is, a tip is a small thank you for services rendered. Thank you to the doorman for getting you a cab, to the cabdriver for not killing us, and to the waitress for … well, for being a waitress. But that’s not really it, is it? All these people would do those things without the tip. We tip because it’s expected, because we don’t want to seem mean, because we want to seem generous, because we want to be like everyone else. Tipping isn’t really about them. It’s about you. You hand over the money so you can feel better. Or at least, not worse.

Your awkwardness with this ancient, simple transaction is wrapped in veils of euphemism. You could also call it a gratuity, or pourboire, or “a little something,” “a consideration,” “grease.” This insecurity with tipping is naturally exploited by those who are tipped. The business of tipping in restaurants is especially perverse and Byzantine. Tips in cash are relatively straightforward, but when they’re added to a credit card bill, it gets more complicated. Management has to hand them on, and they’re generally subject to tax. This implicitly makes them not a gift but part of wages. So, restaurateurs started treating them as pay, meeting the legal minimum wage through the tips on credit cards. This is plainly not what the customers thought they were leaving behind.

All that business of handing over upward of 20 percent (or even 25 percent, as San Francisco waiters were rumored to demand recently) is absurd. It’s Danegeld. If four of you go out for dinner, it’s like paying for a fifth. That’s not a tip—that’s protection. Tips only apply to services where we have to meet the service provider face to face, and we feel socially and economically both superior and shamed by our superiority. It’s a vestige of the feudal class system. And just because some of the serfs want to keep it doesn’t make it right or good.

But then, look up from the tablecloth at the other diners around you and ask yourself, is a banker’s bonus any less of a tip? Isn’t it just another financial pat on the head, a C-note pushed into the top pocket? It’s still an exercise in power and patronage. You still have to wait by the door with a smile to get it. We should all be paid what we’re worth, and what the market can stand. It should be up front, and in writing. The incentive to do our jobs well should be that we do our jobs well.

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