Imagine that you are out to dinner with your significant other. Maybe it is a first date, maybe it’s your anniversary, but it is a romantic meal at a fancy restaurant. You have just finished a delicious dessert of tiramisu or a delicious slice of apple pie a la mode. You remove your silk napkin from your lap as the check arrives at your table in a black leather case. You open the case and read the check slowly until you reach the bottom of the thin paper slip.
How much do you tip the waiter? Think about it to yourself right now: Do you tip 15 percent, 20 percent? Less, more? Once you pick a percentage, think about why you picked that specific number. Did you tip more to impress your date or less because the meal was expensive on its own? Did you tip 15 to 20 percent because that is the customary amount a person tips according to countless studies? Although I can’t guess how much you said you would tip, I can guess at one thing. Most of you didn’t even think about the fact that you heard nothing about the service quality from your waiter in the scenario above. But isn’t that what tipping is all about, rewarding good service and punishing bad service? Not necessarily anymore.
Tipping hasn’t always been a custom in the United States. Actually, if you went back in time to the early 1900s before Prohibition and tried to tip your waiter, it would be seen as a form of bribery and inconsistent with values of equality and democracy. However, in the late 1910s as Prohibition came about, restaurants’ opinions of tipping rapidly shifted; what was once bribery became an obligation. As restaurant owners saw a large loss in profits due to the inability to sell alcohol, they had to find a way to spend less money to stay afloat. Therefore restaurateurs began to promote tipping their waiters and waitresses so that they could remove some of the financial burden of paying their servers.
Basically tipping became a custom so that restaurateurs could pay their workers less, making their patrons pay for better service. Since the 1920s, tipping has been a custom in America, along with the lower wage of tipped workers. The minimum hourly wage of a non-tipped worker is $7.25, while the hourly wage of a tipped worker is $2.13. The $5.12 an hour difference is supposed to be made up in tips, but why should a tipped worker depend on other people to pay them a supposedly living wage?
But if tipping is a worldwide custom, why not just live with it? Because tipping isn’t a worldwide custom at all; most countries do not typically expect tipping at the end of every meal. The custom of tipping to pay staff is almost unique to the United States and Canada. Even in the United Kingdom, where most people say the custom of tipping in the United States came from, tipping is not always expected or necessary. All wait staff have the same minimum wage as other workers, which is £6.70 an hour or $10.22 (starting on Oct. 1 for employees over 21 years old). Therefore, tipping isn’t necessary for the waiter to make a living wage and isn’t a customary thing to do, but is thought of as an extra gift when given.
Isn’t tipping important, though, to give the waiters incentive to provide great service to get a larger tip? Sadly, tipping has changed from its original goal of being an incentive for better service, and the relationship between tip percentage and service quality barely exists. A study into the relationship between tipping and service quality was performed by Cornell University in 2010. Business school students went to a variety of restaurants and recorded information about their experience, including a rating from one to five for service quality and what tip percentage they gave. The results of this experiment found that the “specific relationship between service quality and tip percentage varied across subjects … most participants increased their tips by one to two percent of the bill for each one point increase in service rating on a five point scale; however, many varied their tip percentages with service quality hardly at all.”
This means that the difference between horrible service and great service was only about five percent of a tip. Also, many people didn’t change the amount they tipped even if they rated the service differently. If great service barely has an effect on the type of tip received, why provide great service? Why not just give servers a steady income and treat them as non-tipped employees? If they are giving horrible service, then fire them.
Even some cruise ships are employing a non-tipping system where the wait staff’s tip is included in what you pay and then divided among the workers. Popular cruise lines like Norwegian Cruise Line have employed this technique of charging a $12-a-day extra service charge (paid before you get on the ship) to be spilt and paid as a tip to the staff. Since employing this new technique, Norwegian has seen no drop in service quality on their ship. However, they have saved passengers the stress of calculating and arguing over tips for each of their servers and staff at the end of the cruise.
After all of this, why is tipping still a custom in the United States? We don’t like change—it is as simple as that. We could give servers a normal wage and increase the price of the food a slight bit, like every other industry does, and therefore save restaurant patrons the time and argument of figuring out how much to tip. But instead we leave a timeworn and outdated custom in place for old times sake. This is not a new discussion either; even the popular YouTube channel “Collegehumor” published a video on this subject early this year titled “Why Tipping Should Be Banned—Adam Ruins Everything.”
Tipping is an obsolete tradition that needs to be abolished. However, this absolutely does not mean you shouldn’t tip your waiter or waitress. But these facts should make you think about why we keep this old custom as you look at the leather bound case holding a thin sheet a paper. And as you bring your pen to the paper and decide whether the waiter will make more than minimum wage or not this hour, you should remember that the only way to make change happen is to stand up and speak out.