The Delights and Problems of Tipping

Aaron Nava
August 13, 2020
It was the left that dragged things long considered personal into the political realm. Not even the basic acts of breaking bread and pouring wine are exempt – not when there are hard-done-by serving wretches to be shielded from the rich or callous. And that certainly covers the once-subtle art of deciding whether to leave a little (or a lot) extra. Aaron Nava navigates the surprisingly treacherous shoals of tipping – its social, moral, transactional and political features. Relying on his good heart and sunny optimism, Nava steers his way to the sincerely personal and soundly conservative bases for tipping, reasoning that preserves the free choice of the customer and protects the dignity of the recipient.

The Delights and Problems of Tipping

Aaron Nava
August 13, 2020
It was the left that dragged things long considered personal into the political realm. Not even the basic acts of breaking bread and pouring wine are exempt – not when there are hard-done-by serving wretches to be shielded from the rich or callous. And that certainly covers the once-subtle art of deciding whether to leave a little (or a lot) extra. Aaron Nava navigates the surprisingly treacherous shoals of tipping – its social, moral, transactional and political features. Relying on his good heart and sunny optimism, Nava steers his way to the sincerely personal and soundly conservative bases for tipping, reasoning that preserves the free choice of the customer and protects the dignity of the recipient.
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With provinces and cities easing one pandemic-related restriction after another, Canadians have been flocking back to their favourite restaurants and bars (or any that happened to open). Going out to eat and drink still poses a small risk of infection, but there’s often a little risk in enjoyable experiences, even if sitting for a meal shouldn’t normally remind one of skydiving, spearfishing or skiing avalanche slopes. Whichever way we look at it, we’re once again permitted to go out and bask in the many little things we’ve come to appreciate about an evening on the town. The smiles, the looks, the togetherness. The ribbing, laughter, droll anecdotes or important announcements. Discussing what you’d like to order from the menu, as two of your guests agree to split a large meal. Chatting about how one friend hates red wine or how you can’t believe another drinks Carlsberg.

And at the end, the bill. Tipping doesn’t always make it into the conversation – some people prefer to keep it discrete, especially when they’re treating everyone – but some seem eager to comment when the topic comes up. Some might even respond to your innocuous question over whether they had received the right bill by making a show of describing why they’re tipping 20 percent like they always do. A few people, it seems, rarely pass up an opportunity for virtue signalling or old-school ostentation.

What are the problems with tipping a lot or not enough?
Time to be together again! (And talk about tipping.)

For what it’s worth, I tip. I think it’s a good idea, if one wants good service. I tip because I like people, and I especially make a habit of tipping consistently at places where I’ve come to know the staff. I tip because it feels good to reward someone who works hard for modest wages and provides a good product and service at a fair price. But I also tip for transactional reasons. Tipping is in the interests of every customer who wants a great experience. That is to say, tipping is not merely a pat on the back but a material inducement to maintain peak performance. Call this the “libertarian millennial’s” tipping philosophy.

Our author likes to tip — but not for the quasi-socialist reasons advanced by many (including tipping “experts”).

The inducement is indirect, of course. A server or cook can’t go back in time for a do-over of a sub-par experience, hoping to earn a better tip. It’s an inducement for next time. Next time you stroll in, if they recognize your face. More likely, it’s for the next customer, and the one after that. It’s a generalized incentive for the recipients to keep up standards. It’s meant to benefit everyone. It’s analogous to how, while driving, we help others merge partly because we’re contributing to a general good practise and we hope someone else helps us merge tomorrow or next year. Perhaps sociologists have a term for this phenomenon. “Pay it forward”, perhaps? So it is, at least in part, with tipping.

But there are other reasons that many people offer in favour of tipping, reasons often delivered in a judgemental tone. The first argument goes that serving staff – bartenders and waiters, mainly, but also hosts and lower-level kitchen workers – are poorly paid, in many cases actually below the standard minimum wage of the jurisdiction in question. In Ontario, servers in a tipping environment are legally entitled to just $12.20 per hour instead of the province’s standard minimum $14 per hour.

Social graces: Offering the right-of-way when driving, and cutting pedestrians some slack. Some see tipping as similar.

The expectation, from the government on down, is that tips will make up the difference. Viewed in that light, they are not a perk, reward, bonus or freebie, they’re core to the person’s basic earnings. If you don’t tip to offset the shortfall, the server earns less than the law normally demands – and it’s your fault. In essence, tipping is presented as an entitlement for one party and a social obligation upon the other. Combine this with many Canadians’ ever-expanding views about “what’s fair” and their fretting over the gap between “rich” and “poor”, and you have a kind of soft social-democrat view of tipping as a moral requirement.

Some U.S. voices, indeed, describe tipping as a way for the customer to personally fight inequality and help reduce wage gaps by compensating women and minorities more equally. It’s a questionable take, given claims that black and white people alike tip white servers more. Others advocate tipping 20 percent of the pre-tax bill “when possible” on the basis that “being a generous tipper is one way to be an ally of the restaurant workers.” In that instance, the socialist impulse doesn’t seem so soft. The second argument then, revolves around inequality based on class, sex or race. But if that is the universal motivator, and the recipients realize it, the promise of reward for delivering a memorable experience evaporates – as well as the risk of punishment if the “memories” being created are bad ones.

How much to tip is another question and here, it seems, we’ve been somewhat bamboozled by habits in our neighbour to the south. There, tipping percentages are often lavish and the U.S. “tipping economy” was recently estimated to see about US$40 billion change hands annually. Yet servers in Canada are often paid much more than in the U.S. There the federal minimum wage for servers is an astonishing US$2.13 per hour – you read that right – making tips the vast majority of such unlucky servers’ earnings there. There’s even a term for it: the “tipped minimum wage”. In a strange instance of moral hazard at work, Americans’ generosity in the realm of tipping was used by lobbyists over a decade ago to argue against raising the federal minimum wage – and it has stayed put ever since. 

Lavish tippers: Most Americans probably don’t know that the federal minimum wage for servers is only a couple of bucks an hour, making the tip a matter of life and death.

But while a lower minimum wage, along with generally lower input costs and taxes, helps hold down prices in many U.S. bars and restaurants (I’m talking about ordinary places in ordinary markets, not Guide Michelin celebrity hangouts in Napa Valley) and food portions are often much larger south of the border, many Canadians still feel expected to tip at 18-20 percent or even more, like we’re Americans. The higher average bills we’re handed further increase the size of the resulting tip.

Did we just import a social custom from America out of context, without amending it to suit our own norms and laws? It wouldn’t be the first time, but if we’re going to do the Canadian thing and imitate popular American habits while still feeling morally superior to them, we should try to find ways to tip that make more sense for us.

I realize there are many tipping situations I haven’t space to delve into. Mountain guides, fishing guides, boat captains and surfing instructors, for example, can generate enormous tips and gifts, and many already earn well over minimum wage or run their own business. Porters and valets can get $5, $10, $20 or even more for mere minutes of work. Of course, there’s also the question of distribution. Much of your tip might be taken from the direct recipient and trickle through to the hosts, chef, kitchen staff, cleaners, possibly managers, perhaps even key suppliers without whose diligence the “catch of the day” might reek of something fit only for the alley cat. Distribution practices vary greatly and are often bitterly contested among staff, so you can never be sure how much of your tip ends up in the hands of the person you are trying to reward.

From outdoor guides to valets, tipping has many faces and many levels

These examples further erode the wage-entitlement rationale for tipping, which I consider innately specious. Its logic breaks down as soon as you do the math. If you’re dining out in $12.20-per-hour Ontario and are concerned that your below-minimum-wage server is not being paid enough per hour, have you ever considered tipping a mere total of $1.80? For every hour you spend in a bar or restaurant, that paltry amount covers the difference from the regular minimum wage. And you probably won’t be the only party they’re serving. If they’re covering six tables, then tips of a mere 30 cents per hour spent in the restaurant would make up the wage difference.

Such a practice wouldn’t please anyone, to put it mildly. If I tried that, everyone I know would think I was being ungenerous or deliberately contemptuous. Servers, someone would likely note, are some of the least well-paid workers we regularly encounter, and would express outrage that I wasn’t doing my part to help the less fortunate. Clearly, something more than just a desire to top up wages is at work in the tipping dynamic.

That brings me to the third argument, under which tipping is an appeal to charity. But it’s an unconvincing one, for society offers an essentially inexhaustible supply of people in meagrely paid job categories struggling to make ends meet. And people noticeably do not tip every person who serves them. We tip cabbies but usually not dry cleaning attendants. Are they in any less need? Even if you’re to be “fair” to everyone who serves you, leaving a large tip at each restaurant you visit is obviously not the ideal method for helping out the poorest or hardest-hit people. 

Trickle-through economics: Tip-outs or distributions to other staff are eagerly sought and at times bitterly fought-over.

Trickle-through economics: Tip-outs or distributions to other staff are eagerly sought and at times bitterly fought-over.

It’s hard to imagine that money spent tipping at a bar you’ve chosen to visit would be more helpful than donating to the Ottawa Food Bank, say, or to the Against Malaria Foundation, where it was estimated in 2015 that each $3,337 spent could save a human life. If we’re shaming each other with appeals to charity, it’s worth considering that we live in the information age. Those in genuine need (or who work on their behalf) can make much more detailed and plausible appeals to charity, and those who provide it can make much more soundly reasoned donations, ones having nothing to do with appearing generous to your drinking buddies or dining companions. 

Earlier I suggested that people ought to tip if they want good service. The available research claims that this isn’t a major reason for tipping, or at least people aren’t very systematic about it. One article asserts that a mere 4 percent of the variability of tips has to do with the quality of service. If that were true, tipping would have little power to promote high quality of food, drinks, service, attitude, décor, entertainment and cleanliness. Giving a server a few dollars might not seem that important to many patrons, but then we’re conceding that the service we’re experiencing doesn’t really matter. If that were true, why should we tip at all?

Tipping as charity? There are far more effective — though less ostentatious — ways to help those in genuine need.

Common sense and experience, however, confirm that the “inducement” part of tipping is powerful. My editor has worked in a tipping environment, both in management and as a low-wage-earner, and he tells me it is a perennial and intense internal topic. At the hotel he managed in the Swiss Alps, every aspect from picking up incoming guests at the village railway station to ensuring the bed sheets were white and crisp, the attitude and appearance of the serving staff and, of course, the tenderness of the meat and freshness of the produce, was minutely assessed.

Professionalism and pride at a job well done were important, of course, but how the team’s performance might boost the guests’ generosity nearly always played a role. Most guests understood this. No matter what the “soft socialist” school of tipping might believe, tipping is at heart a transactional dynamic based on pragmatism and usually friendly self-interest. It works – for both sides.

Is there a problem with the friendly self-interest in tipping? Professionalism, pride and overall performance can all encourage hotel guests’ generosity when the stay is over.
Friendly self-interest: Professionalism, pride and overall performance can all encourage hotel guests’ generosity when the stay is over.

The impulse to encourage and pressure others to tip comes from the same source as a lot of other left-wing thought and feeling. It’s seeing someone with the opportunity to do something for people who might need it, and wanting, sometimes needing, that others do more, in order to make the world a better place, or at least a fairer-seeming place. Sometimes this involves manipulating or pressuring a friend into giving a suitably-sized tip whether or not they feel it’s truly deserved. Sometimes this comes after harsh words, with the threat of more, in which case the expenditure feels coerced. It’s a version of “If you won’t pay higher taxes, you must hate the poor.”

The recipients themselves – workers, managers and business owners – play their own version of the soft coercion game. There’s the proverbial hotel porter with the expectant smirk and extended hand, the cabbie making prolonged direct eye contact, or the sniffing or eye-rolling server disgusted at the paltry reward. In the tourism sector, many managers and operators overtly and repeatedly pressure their guests to tip. Tip jars are proliferating, and many takeout establishments where there is no service of any kind and you eat long after paying dispense dirty looks if no tip is added. 

Some people I know – especially among older generations – resent the manipulation and pressure of being handed a credit/debit processing device on which avoiding a tip not only requires a convoluted set of taps (making it obvious to the server and anyone else watching), but on which tipping “options” start at 20 percent. I’ve heard of devices in the U.S. with tap buttons reading up to 35 percent. That’s insane. On a bill of, say, US$200 for a great multi-course dinner with drinks for two in a nice place in a midscale market (still not Aspen or Manhattan), such a tip would come out to US$70. Even on a longish dinner, the server would be banking an extra US$30 per working hour per table.

It’s not hard to see why the issue arouses intense feelings. Servers may be some of the least well-paid people we encounter on a regular basis, but they’re far from faceless and nameless. Servers at our favourite places come to know our names, develop in-jokes with us – becoming like a friend or even extended family member. It seems like an outrage even to consider withholding what they’re due. And as we get to know them, we come to feel that what they deserve is more than what we give, that perhaps even 20 percent isn’t enough.  

The art of connecting: Tipping problems overlook the value of human interaction and connection.
The art of connecting: Getting to know your server may be the best mutual reward of all.

Despite the fact that tipping and wages encourage servers to treat us well, there may be servers in your lives who mean more to you than a few extra dollars at the end of dinner. The next time you connect with a server, consider reaching out to them. Perhaps you’ll make a real friend. The sentimental bonds of this sort, formed by nurturing personal relationships, are far more convincing to me than the “You must always tip 15-20 percent” argument in which politics often lurks just below the surface. Analogous to the historical conservative basis for charity, tipping remains a personal decision, often made to help the people on “your team”.

Fundamentally, tipping is and must always be a choice, one left entirely in the hands of the customer. Otherwise, we might as well dispense with the charade and either legislate higher minimum wages or have restaurants incorporate a certain ratio in each bill for “service”. This is still the practice in parts of Europe (although that is slowly changing). There, only stupid North American tourists have traditionally tipped in restaurants or bars and, believe it or not, most staff hold excessive tips in contempt. They look upon it as…charity.

Aaron Nava is a writer, social media and political manager living in Ottawa.

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