Why we should put an end to this barbaric custom.
“Oh darn, I thought it was a tip,” huffed the huge cashier in her best Eeyore voice from behind the counter of a gas station in rural Maine. She had pointed out that I had accidentally given her one dollar too much, and when I pocketed it after she handed it back to me she got a little disgruntled. Apparently, my thank you wasn’t good enough. She wanted a tip.
Since when do gas station cashiers expect tips?
One of the most difficult things for foreigners to the USA to understand is our propensity for tipping. In the USA, we tip just about everybody that we see working on our behalf. We tip wait staff in restaurants, we tip concierges in hotels, we tip bartenders, tattoo artists, landscapers, taxi drivers, hair cutters, the dude whose job it is to park your car, food deliverers, masseuses, hotel housekeepers, the kid pumping your gas, doormen . . . wait, do we seriously need to give someone money for opening a door for us? Why does this job even exist? It seems as if we love tipping so much in the USA that we’ve even gone as far as to invent entire professions for no other reason than to allow us to distribute meager handouts a couple more times per day.
I don’t understand this custom. When viewed from the perspective of the 190 countries in the world that don’t tip, it’s an outrageous thing to do. From a global perspective, the notion of employers relying on customers to pay their staff is backwards.
First off, if you’re already paying someone to do job for you why should you have to tack on an extra fee? Everywhere else in the world that’s called being ripped off. If I’m in El Salvador and I agree to pay a guy $10 to fix my sink and he expects $15 when he’s finished, I just got screwed over. In fact, tipping actually is technically illegally in some countries . . .
When I complain about tipping in the USA someone is bound to say, “Well, I guess you don’t know how difficult it is to work in the service industry.” We’ve been repeating the myth that people who work in the service sector have it so much harder than everybody else so often that we’ve started to believe it. How hard can someone possibly have it when their only professional function is to understand the words Unleaded, Plus, and Super, stick a hose into a slot, and squeeze? How difficult is it to reach under a counter, pull out a beer, and hand it to someone? Seriously, if someone can’t write down what someone says on a piece of paper, carry it across a room, hand it to someone else, then 15 minutes later return along the same exact path carrying plates of food then they have far larger problems than being a waiter.
If you want a difficult job, go do what my father did for 20 years working at a factory. That guy would get up on top of buildings in the middle of snow storms and fix the air ducts so the people within could have heat — and he neither expected nor received a tip in his life.
The people who deserve tips are those that society really needs. Sorry, I don’t need some guy dressed in a funny costume to open a door for me; I don’t need someone pumping my gas; I know how to park my own car, thank you. But you know what, I’d like to tip the geomorph who figured out a way to prevent an impending landslide that could have taken out my house. I’d like to tip the men who repaved the road so that it’s safer for my parents to drive to work on. I’d like to tip the teacher who taught me a few things about the world.
Seriously, how would it look if we tipped university professors? “Hey Teach, good class, here’s 10% extra on my tuition.” Students get expelled for this. It’s called bribery. And that’s what tipping is: a bribe. I give you extra money this time, you remember my face and treat me special the next.
Tipping is just something that’s ingrained in us Americans, we just do it naturally and normally — and, collectively, we seem to love it. I didn’t have a problem with tipping before I began traveling internationally. Then I went abroad and realized that there was nothing normal about custom, that it was a rather strange thing that very few cultures in the world do.
The moment this realization hit me was in Ecuador. I was young — it was over 15 years ago — and I was one those bleeding hearts who liked to bloat their egos by distributing tips to waitresses. I thought it made their day or something. I soon became aware that whenever I would do this that the waiter or waitress would act extremely awkward, as though unsure of what to do. I beamed with pride as I felt as if I was doing something unusually nice.
Anyway, one time I tried to give a tip to this waitress in some backwater place in Ecuador and she nearly screeched. She looked down at the coin I’d placed on the table like it was a desecrated crucifix. She refused to touch it. I’d never seen someone more offended. “It’s your propina,” I explained. She scowled. I then realized that I was just another bloated American going around offending people with my handouts, imposing my culture and my ways upon others — the textbook imperial tourist.
In that moment I realized how much of a product of my culture I really was.
There is nothing normal about tipping in places that don’t have the custom. It’s not a nice thing to do. It’s confusing. Sometimes it’s even an insult. In most countries you give spare change to beggars, not people who are just doing their job. To throw them a handout is to humiliate them.
Now I’ve been outside of my home country for the better part of 15 years, and I’ve started to forget the way things are there. Every time I go back I’m enthralled by the fact that so many employers don’t pay their employees, that they rely on the customer to do so. It’s shocking. No other country in the world — except for Canada — expects service employees to live off of tips. In many countries this is illegal. Even in the poorest, most filth ridden, vilest places on the planet, restaurants are paying their workers. So why can’t they in the USA, one of the richer countries on the globe?
Also, I have not detected a lack of proper service in any of the 50 or so countries that I’ve been in outside of the USA because they lack the custom of tipping. To the contrary, the service is often better because the workers are not putting on a performance all day long. The waitstaff is working for their employer, not the customer. They hate their boss, not me. So they just do their job like any other worker in society. If they don’t give good service, they get fired. It’s simple.
Though what I hate about tipping the most isn’t the fact that I need to pay more money. I really don’t pay more, as I’m sure that if tipping wasn’t a part of American culture that the price of my meal, service, or whatever would be proportionally higher. No, what I despise about tipping is the fact that it creates a very ugly social situation: Tipping may have started out as a bribe but is now an extortion. Where we once tipped to ensure good service we now tip to prevent against getting bad service.
I hate going into restaurants in the USA and having the waitstaff size me up as to how much money they think they can get out of me. They take one look at me and figure they’re not getting much, so they shoo me off to the worst tables, make me wait longer to have my order taken, and my food tends to arrive later than that of the richer looking people around me. I don’t blame the waitstaff — it’s the system they work under that creates this scenario, and they are just doing what they should to maximize earnings. Though entire ethnicities and nationalities are sized up this way, stereotyped, and are then given the appropriate level of service to match their reputation for tipping. That’s a rather screwed up social dynamic.
Though the waitstaff is also sized up, critiqued, and rewarded/ punished by the customer. Waiters and waitresses are performing for a very critical audience who is always looking for them to slip up so they can justify giving them 15% instead of 20%. For those who don’t work in the service industry, imagine having your client loom over you every step of the way as you work, making critical notes, and detracting from your pay with every minor screw up. Paying someone based on how obediently they serve you is a barbaric custom. Sizing up and evaluating a servant’s performance, rewarding good behavior and punishing bad, is a sick power trip.
The entire custom of mandatory tipping is vile and should be eradicated worldwide.