Has tipping reached the tipping point?

It’s Christmas Eve. Grandma has been up since dawn preparing the largest feast imaginable for the entire family. Turkey, potatoes, sprouts, stuffing, Yorkshire puddings, carrots, and heaps of gravy among other trimmings cover the table as dinner starts. After the family clears their plates, they all turn to thank the Grandma— the cook of the night. Following their words of praise, you slide a crisp five-pound note down the table to tip your Grandma for the lovely service. Your family members exchange bewildered looks, as this gesture is most certainly distasteful.

While this example is of course over-the-top, it does introduce a subject that contains a lot of grey area. In many cultures it is deemed appropriate, and sometimes even expected, to tip for service-based purchases. The question I ask is why?

Usually, a tip is given for a service with the idea that the person in front of you has done something for you and they have been somewhat under-payed for their work and it is therefore in your hands to make up for this gap. But how is this amount determined and why is it the customer’s responsibility to fill that gap in pay?

At restaurants, for example, it is standard to take 10-20% of the total bill and add it onto the final cost of your meal. But doesn’t it seem strange that if you order a £10 salad and a tap water that the tip is £2 versus if you order a £30 steak and £20 bottle of wine that the tip is now £10? Hasn’t the waiter done the same amount of work? Why should their tip amount hinge on the quantity or quality of food that is ordered? In larger groups a cheap and fun meal can turn expensive very quickly.

Frankly, worrying about the extra cost from the tip and choosing what to order based on this fear of the extra cost can spoil the dining experience. And why should the waiter behave like a show pony and have to put on an overly-fake smile and speak to the customers like they’re their best friends in the entire world? Are they just being extra nice so that their table gives an extra few quid? Isn’t that so… artificial?

Then comes the notion that at times a tip isn’t an option, but rather an expectation (like in the USA). I often hear friends and people I know from America complaining about customers who don’t tip enough or don’t tip at all. Those same friends, from time to time, then brag about how they will have a “good night” and earn hundreds in tips from their part-time waitressing jobs. Why should these people working less time earn as much a day as people with full-time jobs?

It’s a topic that people feel very passionate about:

As almighty and noble as that may be, how entitled has this generation become? If I am a student and have a little bit of spare change at the end of the week for a drink or two, but not enough to leave a 20% tip, I’m supposed to just stay at home?

Tipping isn’t supposed to make anybody rich. Furthermore, most of the jobs that often “earn” tips aren’t particularly difficult. Doctors don’t get tipped and they’ve spent years of their life gaining debt. People who volunteer don’t get tipped, and by the time they factor in travel and opportunity costs, they’re probably losing money.

Another thing. Let’s say we have an excellent service experience. Can we even be sure that the tip we pay is going directly into the pocket of our waiter? Or is there a chance that it goes into a community tip pot where dreadful waiters get to draw from the hard work of great waiters?

Here’s where I draw the line. I do not and cannot blame the waiters, servers, hairdressers, etc. for their career paths. It’s not their fault that the system is the way it is. It has been this way for decades and decades. The people who are truly at fault are the bosses and management who get away with paying tiny wages and let their customers pay not only for the product/service, but their workers’ money.

Tipping culture is on the verge of out-of-control in some places. Tipping was intended to reward exceptional service but has gradually become the reason/way that many people earn money to survive. Employers and lawmakers should shift the accountability of making sure service industry workers get their fair earnings from customers to business owners.

Otherwise, there could be a day when a tip is expected to be just as much as the meal you’ve paid for. Better get even more used to those Tesco curries!

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