We should rethink tipping

Going out to restaurants and bars has become a bit of a painful experience for me. For years, a night out with my friends has looked a little something like this:

We sit down, order drinks and have nice conversation. Everyone eats way too much, so we all sit and wait 30 minutes for our stomachs to settle.

Finally, the moment of dread arrives: everyone pulls out their wallets to pay. The issue for me isn’t paying —  I’m always on a tight budget, but I pay my part like everyone else at the table. The issue comes when everyone starts negotiating the tip.

“Oh, they were a good waiter. What’s 15% of the bill?”

“Yeah I’ll just throw in a couple of bucks, these waiters could definitely use the money.”

I imagine this is par for the course for just about everyone reading… and yet, I could not think of a more bizarre restaurant ritual for us to engage in.

Hear me out: I promise, I don’t hate poor college students trying to make ends meet. I understand that the vast majority of restaurant workers, baristas and bartenders rely on tips to make a living. In fact, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the number totals to around 4.3 million workers. The problem is that our culture of tipping contributes to the precise reason why so many American workers rely on tips.

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Think about it. Employers in the service industry know well that tipping culture is socially mandated. Without thinking of the value of a tip relative to the service provided, business owners know tables are forking over enough to increase the real wages earned by each worker by at least a few dollars. Given that, employers have a huge incentive to lower wages. Instead of making positions competitive by paying their employees a living wage, they pass on the obligation to make their workers pay rent to us and cut their wages back to save money. That’s a massive burden to place on consumers, especially poorer ones who can barely afford to pay for the service, nevertheless an arbitrary bonus on top of the bill.

Essentially, our uncritical culture of tipping has led to the justification for low wages. Why pay people a living wage when they know they literally will never have to? It’s like holding consumers economically hostage —  cough up a few extra dollars for little to no improvement in the service, or else face the consequence of reduced social capital.

On top of the harms to workers, tipping doesn’t even have the conventional benefits most people praise it for. Aside from the moral and economic aspects, most assume tipping incentivizes better service. Waiters know customers will throw a few extra dollars their way if they’re attentive and nice, which gives them a reason to take better care of you on your night out —  so the story goes.

The reality is that tipping 15-25% is an expected social norm, enforced by the scowls from your date and pointed questions from your waiter. Thus, those in the service industry are expecting a tip one way or another and are unlikely to greatly improve their service. One Cornell study in 2000 found that differences in customer service ratings account for just a one to five percent variation in tipping increases. Moreover, in countries like Japan, where tipping is seen as rude, service is still fantastic, proving tipping isn’t necessary for a quality experience.

It gets even worse from there. Not only do tips have a minuscule influence on the quality of service, but the size of the tip is usually based on completely arbitrary factors. For starters, tipping itself discriminates based on service. Why are tipping waiters and bartenders the norm, but not plumbers or fast-food workers?

It also discriminates based on… well, everything else. A study cited by The Economist found that gender and race greatly influence the size of tips, with black servers being tipped less and “attractive” servers pocketing $1,261 annually more than “unattractive” ones.

At best, tipping has become antithetical to its purpose. At worst, it actively contributes to the low wages paid out to the poorest and most marginalized. Your tipping is not helping, it’s contributing to the problem. The only way to stop it is by collectively abandoning this insane ritual, which will incentivize employers to pay their employees the wages they deserve instead of footing the bill to us.