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  • Kirsten Bell

The (il)logic of tipping

This post originally appeared on the Popanth blog (no longer in operation) in 2016. A greatly expanded version of this article appears in my book Silent but Deadly: The Underlying Cultural Patterns of Everyday Behaviour, where I delve more deeply into the history and meanings of tipping, and anthropological theories on it.


A few months ago I had one of those moments of crisis I periodically experience as an Australian living in Canada. The specific occasion was the steam cleaning of my carpet (er, that’s not a euphemism for anything; I was literally having my carpets cleaned). The cleaners had been hard at work for almost an hour and were starting to wrap things up when suddenly I was struck by a disturbing thought: was I supposed to give them a tip?

As an Australian, the rules of tipping remain somewhat opaque to me, even after a three-year stint in Colorado and a decade in Canada. The thing is that I’m a social anthropologist—studying this kind of thing is supposed to be my bread and butter. Yet, despite a good deal of thought I have not been able to intuit when I’m supposed to tip.

Generally, I learn things the hard way. Thanks largely to Hollywood, I knew at the outset that I was supposed to tip wait staff in restaurants; taxi drivers as well. But everything else remained a mystery. I somehow discovered—two years after arriving in Canada—that people generally tip hairdressers. Miraculously, my hairdresser, who I still have to this day, did not hold this against me.

A rather more public incident occurred when an Australian colleague and I were attending an anthropology conference in Montreal a few years back and decided to have fish and chips one night from a takeaway place. We were waiting for our order and my colleague whispered, ‘Am I supposed to leave a tip?’ ‘Nah,’ I intoned authoritatively; ‘It’s only when you get table service’.

The cashier overheard my response and loudly corrected me. I can’t remember all the details of the unsolicited excursion into Quebec’s tax laws that followed, but the gist was that tipping was factored into food servers’ wages and so they were taxed for it whether they received the additional income or not. Outwardly humbled, we gave a generous tip and slinked out of the shop.1

This incident left me more bewildered than ever. If I tip someone who literally just brings me my order, how is that different from the service I receive at the checkout counter of my local supermarket, where none of the attendants seem to expect any sort of tip for their efforts—even the friendly woman who packs groceries like a Tetris Master.

And why is it that you tip wait staff 15 percent regardless of the cost of the actual meal? Shouldn’t there be some sort of ceiling on tipping? What is the server of my $12 burger and two $7 beers doing that’s so fundamentally different from the waiter at the fancy annual French dinner I have on my birthday—the one where I think ‘why don’t we come here more often?’ and then see the bill and it becomes crystal clear.

If I’m being honest, there are various occasions when I have not tipped. One time, after receiving appallingly bad service, I wrote on the receipt ‘please turn over for tip’ and then proceeded to detail on the back of it precisely what they could have done to receive an actual gratuity.

On another occasion, I tried to explain to the server why I wasn't leaving a tip. This, I thought, would be less cowardly than just not tipping. Plus, I didn't want her to assume that I had accidentally failed to leave a tip because I was Australian;2 I wanted her to know that I had intentionally failed to leave a tip because of the terrible service.

This extremely awkward exchange took place in front of my husband and his brother, who happened to be visiting from Australia, as well as, obviously, the café at large. Even my brother-in-law could see that I was committing a major faux pas. Both of them rushed out of the café, pretending they didn’t know me.

Tipping probably isn’t as fraught for North American natives as it is for me, but if the sheer volume of online tipping etiquette guides (like this and this) is anything to go by, I’m clearly not alone in my confusion.

Pieter de Hooch, ‘Woman giving a coin to a maid’ c.1668-72 (public domain)

In her book The Social Meaning of Money, Viviana Zelizer captures this quality nicely, observing that when tipping was introduced in the USA, it presented something of a puzzle: ‘it lay at the boundary of other critically different transfers, not quite a payment, not quite a bribe, not quite charity, but not quite a gift either’.

For example, tipping is theoretically voluntary. As Ofer Azar points out, it involves voluntary payments for a service that has already been provided and paid for by the time the tip is given. However, although customers are theoretically free to skip the tip, from the most rudimentary (and rude) service to the most obsequious and over-the-top, North American wait staff, taxi drivers, and so on, expect gratuities.

In such contexts, it’s the size of the tip that’s generally in question, rather than its existence at all. Thus, tipping might be a ‘gift’, but only in its true anthropological sense. As Marcel Mauss has shown, the idea of the pure, unfettered gift is a fallacy—there are no free gifts. Gift giving creates a power dynamic that makes the person who has accepted the gift inferior until it has been reciprocated.

In fact, it’s precisely this aspect of tipping that explains why a slight change in context causes it to slide into something else entirely. It might be charitable to tip your waiter, but it’s illegal to tip your local judge—try it and you'll soon find yourself up on bribery charges. And if a police officer expects a tip in order to give you better service, well, there's a label for that too (‘extortion’). Tipping your child's teacher after she receives an A or the surgeon who performed your emergency appendectomy are also likely to raise a few eyebrows.

The more essential the service (as a public good, for example), the less appropriate tipping seems to be. Gratuities have been reserved—historically at least—for menial services performed by the ‘lower classes’. As the 1933 Oxford English Dictionary defined it, a tip is ‘a small present of money given to an inferior especially to a servant or employee of another for a service rendered or expected’. It is for this very reason that tipping in its modern American form is a strikingly recent development—more of a suspect interloper than a revered ancestor.

According to Zelizer, it was only in the 1900s that tipping became commonplace in the USA, in the face of not-inconsiderable resistance. While some approved of it as facilitating fraternity and goodwill, others (the sternly named Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving, for one) saw it as a crass corruption of the gift. Brandishing biblical quotes, they pointed to the moral and social evils of gratuities.

William R. Scott’s The Itching Palm: a Study of the Habit of Tipping in America, published in 1916, recounted the major criticisms. "Tipping is the modern form of Flunkyism," he wrote. Denouncing it as un-American, Scott characterized tipping as an aristocratic custom designed to instil a sense of servitude. It was, in his words, ‘what we left Europe to escape. It is a cancer in the breast of democracy’.3

For Scott, tipping engendered a grafting spirit (‘the Barbary pirates would have been ashamed to go it that strong!’) and served to reinforce rigid class distinctions. It also encouraged ‘the loss of that fineness of self-respect without which men and women are only so much clay—worthless dregs in the crucible of democracy’.

As a result of such sentiments, there were various attempts to abolish tipping by turning it into a punishable misdemeanour. According to the labour historian Dorothy Cobble, between 1909 and 1918, seven US states enacted anti-tipping laws. Union activists and female social reformers also condemned the habit as reinforcing low wages and encouraging immorality in waitresses dependent on male customers for their livelihood. (Then, as now, tipped professions were heavily gendered.)

Union officials observed that tipping created a dynamic that made it difficult for waitresses to ‘draw where the line of propriety should be’ because without the practice they wouldn't have made enough money to live on. Indeed, Cobble observes that as a result of tipping, the financial potential of waitressing exceeded that of other more skilled professions open to women. Nevertheless, this potential was rarely realized—especially when tips were averaged over the course of a career. After all, decent gratuities generally correlated with the woman’s possession of youthful good looks: as she got older, the tips got smaller.

Despite these critiques, tipping became increasingly entrenched during the twentieth century—to such an extent that the federal minimum wage for tipped professions in the USA is currently $2.13 per hour, based on the assumption that the bulk of their income will be paid by customers themselves.

In other words, the good will of the public has effectively been institutionalised in the US wage system—a rather extraordinary state of affairs when you stop to ponder it. Tipping in such circumstances becomes virtually a moral obligation,4 which is why North Americans tend to tip when they travel, even in countries where it's neither expected nor, arguably, desired.5 The idea that they are otherwise ‘cheating’ their server of wages is too ingrained to be relinquished lightly—even when they visit countries like Australia, where the minimum wage is $17.70 per hour.

So why on earth does anyone enter a tipped profession?

The problem is that these jobs will always remain attractive in a system where wages are low, based on the promise that you might earn substantially more than the federal minimum wage, which, at $7.25 per hour in the USA, clearly isn’t enough to actually live on.6 The promise might not be realised, at least consistently, but it dangles alluringly in the distance—like the prospect of a ‘fun’ New Year's Eve party or the hope that those ‘this is the most hilarious joke I've ever read!’ emails your parents forward will actually be funny.

Thus, despite Scott’s denunciation of the practice as un-American, tipping has become inflected with a sort of quintessentially American logic. Like the American Dream, it seems to be perpetuated by the belief that if you’re good enough, determined enough, and work hard enough, you can succeed.

The problem is that, like the American Dream, it seems to legitimise—and thrive on—inequality: wage inequality between tipped and non-tipped professions; and between those individuals whose physical attributes facilitate good tips and those who don't (it’s not like racism, sexism, ageism and beautyism suddenly disappear when it comes to the dynamics of tipping).

As Scott observed: ‘if the $200,000,000 or more annually [the figure is billions now] given to those serving the public should be withdrawn suddenly, employers would face the necessity of a radical readjustment of wage systems’—a readjustment that would, of necessity, expand to include non-tipped as well as tipped professions.

Despite its repressive effects on the minimum wage, tipping is now so entrenched in North America that it’s difficult to see how change might occur, although a growing number of restaurants in New York and on the west coast have instigated ‘no tipping’ policies, and raised wages and menu prices accordingly.

Yes, that’s right, without tipping, menu prices are invariably higher, which partly explains why some North Americans categorically reject the concept. But unless you’re a seriously stingy tipper, it wouldn’t necessarily change the overall bill. Plus, you get to experience the novel pleasure of knowing at the start of the meal exactly how much it’s going to cost.

There’s one more argument that is consistently made in favour of tipping: that it facilitates better service. Interestingly, this argument has been made not only in North America, but in countries like China, where tipping has recently made a comeback (after being wiped out in the Maoist era) in ‘trendy’ restaurants. While it’s probably true that the best service I've ever received has been in North America, this is also unquestionably the site of the worst service I’ve ever received.

Although service might be more consistently mediocre in countries without tipping, if this means that the salary for front and back workers, male and female, black and white, and young and old is the same substantially higher hourly rate, this seems a small price to pay. Moreover, you don’t feel obligated to pay extra for a service, regardless of whether it’s actually provided or not.

One hundred years ago, when Scott penned his diatribe on tipping, he declared: ‘Some day this majority will rise up and deal as summarily with the tipping practices as our forefathers dealt with the Mediterranean tribute custom!’ Sadly, this prediction has so far proved to be wildly optimistic, but I live in hope that the conversations about the minimum wage happening in North America expand to include the possibility of abolishing tipped professions entirely.

While tipping might not be a cancer in the breast of democracy, it’s at the very least a boil on its buttocks—isn’t it time to lance the wound?

Further Reading

The history of tipping—from sixteenth-century England to United States in the 1910s, by Ofer H. Azar (2004, Journal of Socio-Economics).

The Social Meaning of Money, by Viviana Zelizer (1997, Princeton University Press).

The Itching Palm: a Study of the Habit of Tipping in America, by William R. Scott (1916, Penn Publishing Company).

The Gift, by Marcel Mauss (2000, W.W. Norton and Company).


1 I mean, I still don’t tip when I get takeaway, but I try to be less obvious about it.

2 As an Australian, I am often treated to a look of resignation when I hop in taxis and the driver hears my accent, and then surprised delight when I provide a decent tip. One taxi driver captured the general sentiment when he stuttered, upon receipt of a tip: ‘But you're Australian! You lot are the worst tippers’ (it’s true; we are).

3 Given that this was 1916, Scott’s open mention of the words ‘breast’ and ‘cancer’ in the same sentence shows just how inflamed his passions on the topic were, although ‘the dread disease in the bosom of democracy’ admittedly doesn't have quite the same ring.

4 This seems to hold true even in Canada, where the gap between the minimum wage of liquor servers and other sectors typically amounts to a little more than $1 per hour. Why liquor servers specifically (as opposed to wait staff more generally) receive the reduced minimum wage is a mystery, unless it's some sort of universal truth that drunk people tip more.

5 And in countries where a 'voluntary' service charge has already been added to the bill (England: I'm talking to you!), leading them to unknowingly double tip.

6 And good luck trying to live on $10.45 per hour in Vancouver (a city that regularly places in the top three in the ‘world's least affordable housing market’ lists), which is the current state of the minimum wage in British Columbia.

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