Tipping: Is it worth it?

Alan Cai

November 10, 2023

We’ve all seen it in restaurants, hair salons, and taxis: After a bill comes out, the service provider expects an extra 20% charge for gratuity. Tipping is not universal; most countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America do not expect or accept extra gratuity. In fact, in some East Asian countries and Iceland, tipping may be considered insulting. Given that the wasteful practice is putting a significant burden on American pockets especially as prices across the board are soaring, it is essential to reevaluate the origin and necessity of tipping.

Tipping started in late feudal Europe as a way to show appreciation for servants who provided excellent service. Americans adopted the practice in the early nineteenth century as an attempt to emulate the perceived quasi-aristocratic prestige. Tipping became a custom for some American elites to show appreciation or flaunt wealth in public settings.

The problematic history of tipping began when gratuity became widespread during the Reconstruction era. Business owners opted to force newly freed African American workers to rely on gratuity from patrons rather than provide a tangible wage. A notable example of gratuity kicking off in a widespread manner as a replacement for wages was the Pullman Company, a company that manufactured and operated sleeping cars or “sleepers” on trains. Aside from its notorious wage gouging practices, the Pullman company is also known for its involvement in the Pullman Strike, a landmark labor event in 1894, and the founding of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters by Asa Philip Randolph in 1925. Both subjects may be explored further in future articles.

Although not necessarily a direct vestige of slavery, tipping does ostensibly carry the egregious legacy of antebellum America. It must be thoroughly evaluated and considered for eradication due to the overwhelmingly troublesome history it has had.

Gratuity benefits neither the consumer nor the employee. While consumers must pay extra out of their pockets to supplement the wages business owners would not supply, employees are forced to accept lower wages(often lower than the minimum wage) and jeopardize their income on the generosity of customers. This issue is exacerbated during times of economic downturn during which customers are less willing to shell out a few extra dollars for every meal, a detriment which, when compounded with inflation at the grocery store, will spell financial ruin for many service providers. Single mothers who depend on fluctuating tips for survival are put at an especially large disadvantage.

In order to ensure fairness and leave the racist roots affiliated with gratuity, it is essential for business owners to own up to the responsibility of managing a business and raise the wages for employees so the burden of paying workers no longer falls upon the shifting shoulders of consumers.