Against tipping

I have been traveling a lot recently on work-related matters and this requires me to do things that I don’t routinely do, such as stay in hotels, take taxis, eat at restaurants, and take airplanes.

I generally dislike traveling because of the disruption that it causes in one’s life and the dreariness of packing and unpacking and sleeping in strange places where one does not have access to the familiarity and conveniences of home. But another reason that I dislike these kinds of trips is that they force me to confront the phenomenon of tipping.

I hate the whole practice of tipping. One reason is structural in that tipping enables employers to avoid paying workers less than the minimum wage, let alone a living wage. People who work forty hours per week at the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour make about $11,000 a year (Note that in terms of inflation adjusted dollars, this is the lowest rate since 1955.) But there are exemptions from even this low rate for those jobs where there is an expectation that the employee can earn at least $30 per month in tips. Some jobs pay about half the federal minimum wage rate and employers can justify this practice by arguing that tips more than make up the difference between this and what is necessary to support themselves and their families. But note that all you need is to be able to get $360 per year in tips to be not protected by even the currently miserable minimum wage laws.

I feel that people should not have to depend upon the kindness of strangers (which is what tipping is) to earn a living wage. Anyone who works full time should be able to make enough to live on, which in the US means roughly doubling the current minimum wage, although there is strong regional variation.

I hate tipping because it seems like it is meant to force people to be nice to me. In general, I find people to be nice and polite and helpful without the need for extrinsic motivators for such behavior, acting simply out of politeness and kindness. I think that almost all people are like that and do not need to be paid to extend the common courtesies of life to one another. People smile, greet each other, assist each other if necessary, all because we feel a sense of empathy and oneness with those around us, not because we expect some reward.

But when I tip someone, I feel as if I am implying that that person performed that act of kindness or service because of the expectation of payment. And to me this cheapens that human interaction, transforming it into a commercial transaction. Unfortunately, I don’t know what to personally do about it, other than support the enactment of a living wage for all employees without exemption.

On a personal level, I tip people because I know they are not paid well and depend on tips to make ends meet. But if at all possible, I try to bury the tip so that it is not obviously an exchange of money between the person being tipped and me. In restaurants, I add it to the bill and pay by credit card so that no money directly changes hands between the server and me.

But in some cases, you cannot avoid a cash exchange so I try to avoid situations where the tip is the only money that exchanges hands, but instead is part of the overall cash payment. For taxis, for example, I can add it to the fare so that I am not due any change and so can act like I am paying just the fare. If that is unavoidable and I have to give a cash tip to a person that is not part of a payment for other goods and services, I try as much as possible to do it when the recipient is not there, like leaving it on a restaurant table when leaving, or leaving it in a hotel room when checking out.

But there are some situations, such as with porters and hotel doorpersons and bellhops, where the starkly commercial nature of the tip cannot be disguised. I try as much as possible to avoid those situations (by doing things myself as much as possible) and if I cannot do so, tip as hastily and as unobtrusively as I can.

We do not live in an egalitarian society. Society is stratified by class and wealth. But tips seem to rub everyone’s noses in that reality in a particularly revolting way. The jobs that depend on tips seem to me to encourage servility and an almost feudal sensibility, throwing us back to a former age where the ‘noble lords and ladies’ dispense largesse to a fawning and grateful peasantry. Fortunately I do not spend time in places where wealthy people hang out and where there is an expectation that you will be waited on hand and foot and treated obsequiously. I live largely in a world where people carry their own bags, do their own chores and open their own doors, or do so for others simply out of politeness.

Perhaps I am overreacting to what is ‘normal’ practice, seeing a deep social problem where none exists. But then I wonder how I would feel if the university did not pay me a living wage but instead had tip jars in each classroom and I had to depend upon satisfied students to give tips after each class supplement my income. A colleague tells me that in the old days of the Greek philosopher-teachers, students would pay them for each class if they were satisfied, so this is not an unheard of practice. What would that do to the student-teacher relationship? I cannot imagine that it would be good. So why is it good for other relationships?

What I would really like is for everyone to be paid a living wage.


The Los Angeles Times reports that the IRS is challenging the tax-exempt status of an Episcopal Church because of an antiwar sermon preached on the eve of the 2004 presidential election. It is only one more step before criticizing Bush is equated with blasphemy.

I wonder if the tax-exempt status of churches and other organizations associated with Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and the like are being examined….

Meanwhile, The Daily Show shows how allowing gay marriage has ruined Massachusetts.


  1. Liz V says

    I would be very curious to see if the strong supporters of the Bush administration had their churches investigated.

    Reading that article about the church in California is chilling. My church is a lot like that church -- socially active, politically non-partisan.

    On a random note, a quote in the article is very similar to a quote from Jim Wallis in his book God’s Politics: “How did the faith of Jesus come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war, and pro-American?” If you haven’t read that book yet, I highly recommend it. The full title of the book is “God’s Politics: How the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It”.

  2. Anonymous says

    I have no citation for this, but I believe if an employee does not get enough in tips to make minimum wage, the employer is required to make up the difference.

  3. Elizabeth says

    This is true. If your reported tips do not get you to minimum wage over the course of a work week, then your employer must make up the difference. (Minimum wage for servers, for example, is $2.13 an hour, so you only need $3.02 per hour in tips to cover that difference.)

    Having worked in restaurants for many years, I find tipping to be frustrating because of the mixed message. Tips are supposed to be a reward for good service, but waiters depend on them for their livelihood. Not tipping becomes a form of punishment and expression of supreme displeasure.

    (It’s also interesting to note that tipping like this is an American custom. I hated waiting on German customers, for example, because they don’t tip unless they’re aware of the difference in custom.)

  4. Barry says

    I can think of a couple of college professors that would have been eating out of a dumpster if they relied on the students for their wages.

    When I worked as a pizza deliveryman, we had to report tips at the end of every shift. One of the veterans told me on my first day “just calculate whatever brings your wage up to $5.25 (Michigan minimum wage) and pocket the rest.”

    I hate finding tip jars in places where the workers are being paid the minimum wage (however meager it may be). Places like small fast food joints, ice cream shops, etc. The reason they make minimum wage is because it’s built into the cost of the product -- I’m not tipping on top of that.

  5. Erin says

    Barry, I agree with your dislike of the tip jars in such places. I ignore them most of the time, but in places where I am a frequent customer -- like my favorite coffee shops in Madison -- I’m embarrassed not to. It’s very unfortunate. With what they charge for the products in those places, I would actually expect the baristas should be making more than minimum wage anyway…

    I agree with Mano’s post, but I also hate tipping because it is one of those customs that relies on unwritten rules and veiled displeasure with people who violate the rules. I am so terrible with those, and so afraid of being scorned for bad manners.

  6. says

    I am glad to hear that the employer has to make up the difference between the tips and the sub-minimum wage. I was shuddering at the thought that people might be making even less that $11,000 a year, not that that figure is anything to celebrate.

  7. Anonymous says

    For a month, I was a server at the Silver Spartan, our campus diner. Not that I balk at hard work, but the whole mindset of being a waitress is sickening and unnatural. The prices at the diner are too high for the amount of food the customer gets, but too low for servers to make much tips from the 10-20% range. I don’t believe in tipping either, but I depended on it to make ends meet for a short while. I think it’s a dirty excuse for employers to avoid paying their workers a living wage, also. Anyhow, I would hardly call what I made a living wage, after taxes were taken out (money made in tips is taxed). The whole system is degrading and illogical. I would love for our school to have a public forum about this. To sum up, I think your feelings on the matter are logical as well as compassionate.

  8. Alyx says

    Employers are supposed to pay the difference between your tips and minimum wage, but many people are unaware of this and it rarely happens.

    I’ve never really thought of the negative social consequences of tipping before. My mother supported her and I by waitressing through most of my childhood, realying heavily on tips. Because of this I tend to tip high, and get very upset at people who refuse to tip, or tip less then 15 or 20 percent.

    The people who get hit the worst by the tipping arrangement are those who work at places like IHOP or Denny’s (or the sparten diner), where there may be hours with few or no customers, many customers tip low or spend a lot of time just drinking coffee, and the food is to cheap for there to be a high percentage from the customers who do tip. These are the people I suspect might make less then $11,000.00 a year for working full time.

  9. says

    I doubt there are many waiters and waitresses who would be in favor of abolishing the tip. My sister (has bachelors degree from a highly ranked university) is a waitress and the tips are the primary reason why she continues to work there instead of the typical white-collar entry level job taken by liberal arts graduates.

    Waiters at a place like Applebee’s or Chili’s probably would not make a whole lot more than minimum wage if tipping were abolished; they clearly would make less money than they do now.

  10. says

    I agree that simply abolishing tipping is insufficient. It has to be accompanied by a living wage that is well above the current minimum wage.

    That would also solve the problem raised above about people working at low-cost places and coffee shops where even tipping at 20% rate may not amount to much.

  11. says

    Do you just completely disagree with the overwhelming majority of economists who believe that a “living wage” is in fact detrimental to the cause of helping poor people?

  12. says

    Yes. I think being paid a living wage is a basic human right. I think it unconscionable that people have to work TWO full time, minimum wage jobs just to edge above the pverty line.

    I am not sure about what the phrase “overwhelming majority of economists” means.

  13. says

    The University of New Hampshire Survey Center surveyed 336 labor economists in 2000 for their opinion on the living wage and its impact on labor markets. Over 75% of those surveyed believed that a living wage would result in employment losses.

    I would agree that it is a travesty that so many people live under the poverty line. However, I think there are much better solutions for improving the state of the poor than a “living wage”, which I sincerely believe would actually hurt the poor.

  14. says

    Actually, I am surprised and encouraged that as many as 25% of labor economists share my view. After all, the US is a capitalist country and that ideology, taken to the extreme, views labor as a commodity and takes as almost axiomatic that labor should be at the mercy of the market and that cheap labor is good for the economy.

    That as many as 25% of the people in this field are willing to buck that view is heartening (to me at least).

  15. Eileen says

    Since it is unlikely that the practice of tipping will change anytime soon, the next best thing is to practice tipping in the most just manner possible. Sometime last year the Plain Dealer did a series of articles on the restaurant service industry and I was suprised to learn that tipping by credit card usually means less money goes directly to the server. The restaurant takes out the 3% surcharge and taxes before passing the tip along to the server. Ever since then, I try to make sure I have enough cash to cover the tip and pay only the bill by credit card. While paying by credit card might feel more removed from a distasteful practice, it actually exacerbates the injustice unless you tip even more to “cover” the restaurant’s withholdings.

  16. Rob Hosking says

    I think restaurants should try these ideas for tipping. Add up the customers bill first, and then automatically apply a 20% tip fee to the gross amount (prior to taxation). That sum should then be added to the bill (after taxes of course) and recorded somewhere for proper distribution to employees. If a customer want to go above that with an extra tip, then that would be their perogative. To keep it fair though, it should be advertised and posted that the restaurant engages in the practice of “post tipping” on the total bill. This would eliminate all the hassle and social wierdnesses associated with tipping. People would eventually learn to understand that post tipping is an accepted practice and based on respect for the servers. If you have a problem with a server it should not be addressed financially anyway. If the employer could count on the added charges, they would feel better about paying the lower wages to make ends meet and the workers could still collect more than minimum wage if business was good that day. Another alternative would be to “post tip” by adding it to the menu’s cost in advance. This might make the whole thing more paletable for everybody since customers would know their prices up-front without being hammered at the cash register. Again, this would need to be explained in the menu and elsewhere so that people didn’t feel they were paying on both ends. If customers knew the higher prices onn the menu included the 20% “post tip”, they could feel more relaxed about the whole dining experience and not feel ackward about even discussing that lame “topic of who’s gonna leave the tip” nonsense. Think about it, if the employer is making his nut on the sale, then he won’t care about the padded prices. I’m about to open a small caffe and coffee shop and I’m going to price my menu with the tip included and allow the employees to “Z” out their own tills at the end of the shift and take their tips directly. This will help motivate the server to stay honest too since they will want to record every sale in order to get their tips from each sale. My benefit is that I will get to pay the lower wage as the employer, which will reduce my part of the matching taxes paid out on payroll. Like I said though, it will only work if people know you have included the tip in the cost of the food and drinks. Wait staff will be motivated to move quickly and secure as many sales as possible too. Getting stiffed will be a thing of the past and workers can wait on everyone with equal results. This will also allow the server to thank the cheapskate too and really mean it. I love the idea of forcing a cheapskate to be generous without their permission. Those types can go somewhere else if they don’t like it anyway. Never cater to the asshole is my opinion. I learned that from owning a bar for many years. Some people are not worth your efforts so why allow them to crap on you. If I’m gonna eat some crap, I’d rather do it for a generous person than some deadbeat non-tipper who thinks the world owes him something. Rock on servers! Hard work is respectable.

  17. Allan says

    Re Barry
    So it’s built into the cost of the product. A coffee for $1.25-$1.75 seems to have lot of profit in it to pay the workers more than minimum wage.

  18. says

    I agree with you completely. I tip only on a “human” level because I know they are not paid well. It’s not because I’m a cheapskate or want to save money, it’s because like you said “I don’t want people to be nice to me because they expect money”.

    It’s like exchanging common decency for a price.

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