Updated: May 4, 2021
by Cerys Jones (Spring 2016)
On a sunny Southern Californian morning, the best thing to do is grab a smoothie full of reviving vitamins. The person serving is expecting a tip, but why? As I stood there, in the smoothie bar, watching our server act non-attentively, dismissively and quite frankly miserably, I was adamant that I was not going to tip her. However, my boyfriend brought out his wallet and gave her a few dollar bills. When we stepped outside with our already over-priced smoothies, I irritably asked him “Why did you tip her?” His response was simple, “She doesn’t earn a living without it”.
I went away from the situation thinking: gratuity is no longer about gratitude! Were we thankful for the service provided by the server? No. Had she provided service that we should be grateful for? No. He simply felt bad as a fellow American who works in the service industry. At face value this may not seem like an issue, conventions shift between cultures and that is just okay.
However, Michael Lynn, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, argues that there are five basic motives for tipping that are not genuine gratuity. For example, “some people tip to show off. Some people tip to help the server, to supplement their income and make them happy. Some people tip to get future service. And then other people tip to avoid disapproval: You don’t want the server to think badly of you. And some people tip out of a sense of duty.”
The five motives that Lynn suggests, which are certainly true in the United Kingdom but are more prominent in the United States, lead to a gratuity culture that is primarily fraught with two problems. The first is that it can often mean customers receive nonchalant service because there is no real incentive to provide good service. The anecdote I told above highlights exactly this. It is common practice in the United States to always tip at least 15% to a server. Therefore, to not do so would be considered rude or going against the norm or perhaps even your duty. The lady serving us would have been aware that because of the motives Lynn suggests we were inevitably going to tip her. As a consequence she had no incentive to provide us with the service that her job description demands from her. She was going to be paid and tipped despite her performance.
A gratuity culture that does not have this issue is Spain. If you are sat in a restaurant or a bar in Spain, it is noticeable that in most places there are no jars, additional service charges on the bill or an expectation to leave behind a monetary “thank you”. However, given the laid-back nature of Spanish culture, the expectation of service provided is significantly different. The more non-attentive service that Americans and Brits would call “bad service” is not considered rude. This may be the reason that tipping is less of a mandatory custom. Nevertheless, there is a tradition of leaving a single euro on the table as a sign of respect and gratitude. Then again, only if the service is good! In turn, the gratuity culture is far healthier. There are no ulterior motives, like the ones that Lynn suggests, behind tipping. Moreover, gratuity is still given, but not one that is an incentive, or a supposed incentive. Therefore, by feeding into the culture of mandatory tipping, we all take away from the incentive of the server to provide good service.
The second problem with the gratuity culture in the United States is the catch 22 of servers not earning enough to live without tips. Federal law currently states through the Fair Labor Standards Act that minimum cash wage can be as low as $2.13 per hour. Moreover, in 18 states the minimum cash wage is that of federal law. Therefore, people in the serving industry, especially in those 18 states, cannot live off merely their cash wage. This is a problem because as a consequence it places the onus on customers to sustain a person’s livelihood. They are no longer being paid to do their job, which in turn could also take away from their sense of work being at all meaningful. It is a catch 22 because as customers you are then motivated by a sense of duty or guilt just, as Lynn suggests. This is because you know the effects that not tipping will have, even though the service may not be worthy of your gratitude. However, if we continue giving gratuity based on any of the five motives that Lynn outlines then it allows for employers to pay the pitiful amount of $2.13 an hour. Servers are doomed without tips, but not legitimately earning them because of the culture surrounding tips. A company, who are an exception to this problem and are purposely trying to move away from the catch 22, is Bruno Pizza in New York City. The owner Damien Repucci took the decision to pay his staff the NYC living wage and in turn has a no-tipping policy. The only downside of this is that no monetary gratitude can be made. However, overall it ensures a server’s sense of work is still intact, as they must perform to the standard that is expected from them. Moreover, it pulls away from the second problem of gratuity no longer being about gratitude!
Therefore, the problem of gratuity is certainly something to stand up for. If you have never been in the service industry, it is almost certain that someone you know has been. By providing monetary gratitude because it is a ‘practice’, you are allowing a person’s sense of work to have low standards. Moreover, you are feeding in to the problem of a poor minimum cash wage. The first step to inducing change is recognition of your intentions. So next time you do take out your wallet to tip a server, ask yourself: why am I doing this?