Opinion | America’s tipping culture undercuts quality working conditions

By Andrew Prozorovsky, Senior Columnist

If an American visits China, Japan or South Korea, he or she is likely to encounter a bit of culture shock from as soon as the taxi ride from the airport: Tipping is not customary — in fact, it is rude.

In America, tipping is not only appreciated but required. It has become institutionalized. Employers aren’t required to pay minimum wage to employees in positions that regularly receive tips. Uber factors in “expected tip” when contracting online drivers. Minimum gratuities are required for larger parties. A tip line will appear on every receipt or digital checkout.

It may surprise some, but tipping was not always a cornerstone of the American service sector. 

The origin of the practice’s popularity can actually be traced back to the Reconstruction Era. Initially seen as classist and condescending, businesses came to embrace tipping to avoid paying recently freed slaves a wage, since many of them took jobs in service. Like most terrible things in America, it is linked to racism.

Some states repudiated tipping. States legislated that accepting tips was a form of bribery but ended up repealing these laws during Prohibition.

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In Adam Ruins Everything, Adam Conover argues the custom of tipping “shortchanges servers, inconveniences customers and makes the dining experience worse.” 

While this is all true, it completely ignores other aspects of the service industry that similarly rely on tips. People generally know to tip a server at the end of a restaurant meal, but fewer know they should be tipping bartenders, hairdressers, baristas and drivers.

Performance artists busk for tips as well and deserve a livable income all the same, but their tips are patently different. Their tips come from passersby and are genuinely appreciated, not coerced. If the performance is at a venue, they complement a booking fee.

Most people think the purpose of tipping is to reflect the quality of service, but a Cornell study indicates people more or less tip the same, regardless of service.

The tipping custom allows businesses to underpay their employees. The employer can simply blame the lack of income on stingy customers rather than their own greed.

It would be easier for everyone if business owners raised wages, raised prices and forbade tipping, but then they wouldn’t be able to capitalize on the psychological impact of looking at low prices. Intuitively, a person may be happier paying $20 for a product, $10 for shipping and a $10 service fee rather than $40 for the product (shipping and service included).

Instead, tipping makes every outing worse. The tip is an awkward end to every meal, which involves doing math, reflecting on one’s own values and occasionally feeling bad while tapping “5% tip” while staring the barista in the eyes.

Moreover, tipping engenders sexual harassment. Some unruly customers withhold tips until getting a smile, name or number — something I have witnessed while bartending.

Tipping encourages prejudice. Cornell’s study found tipping disparities between white and Black patrons. Unfortunately, restaurant servers of all races then become less friendly and enthusiastic toward Black patrons on account of a preconceived bias that they will tip less.

Tipping creates hostile work environments. In a recent headline, a server was fired after a party left a $4,400 tip. She was required by her superior to share the tip with all working staff (including chefs and managers, who never receive tips) and was fired for divulging that information.

Additionally, abolishing the tipping custom would be good for the country’s coffers. Tipping is a mostly cash-based institution, and while service employees are supposed to report their tips correctly in order to pay taxes on them, many do not because they’re underpaid to begin with. If wages were just to rise and replace tips, there would be no way to skirt taxes.

All of this doesn’t mean “don’t tip.” A bad custom is no excuse to tip poorly when expected. Foreign tourists or religious customers who don’t agree with working on Sundays don’t get a pass to skip the tip. Within this absurd system, it is still paramount to tip these service industry employees who rely on tips to make ends meet. 15% to 20% on any service is “the standard” in the United States.

The gig and service economies cannot rely on tips (aka donations) from altruistic patrons to pay the bills. Tipping excuses low wages that circumvent minimum wage. It is inhumane. States should return to an era where tipping was banned and dispel the exception to the minimum wage. It is time American culture adapts once more and embraces what many East Asian countries figured out long ago: Tipping is rude.


Andrew is a senior in LAS.

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