Tipping: To Whom and For What?


As New York begins to reconsider its position on minimum wage for service workers and the influence that the tipping culture which prevails has on the levels of poverty among these workers, I thought it might be interesting to open the debate on this very controversial topic.

In America the tipping culture dominates – go to a restaurant and not leave a tip is the equivalent to clicking your fingers and calling the waiter garcon in a horribly fake French accent, it’s rude and obnoxious. In Japan – tipping is considered insulting – the price is the price, why would you be paying more? In Europe, the issue is a little more clouded and many petit faux-pas lie in wait for the innocent traveller who could easily follow the Will-o’-the-wisp and stray from the safe path.

What’s the problem?

On the face of it, it seems quite straight-forward, who could be possibly be insulted by handing them money? We would all love if somebody wandered through our offices sprinkling €5 notes like fairy dust. However if you scratch beneath the surface some of the issues begin to surface.

In America, and increasingly in other countries, it is being argued that service industry employees are paid a slightly lower wage than other workers ($5 rather than $9 min wage) to encourage them to work for tips and provide a better service. Fair enough, one might think, but actually it implies that if service workers were not penalised by being paid lower wages they would provide a rubbish service, which is simply not true. In fact, it has been shown time and again that the prospect of tipping does not increase the level of service. I am sure everyone has been to a restaurant where the service was terrible, and similarly, has received good service from other workers, such as those in call-centres, offices and so on, without any tipping involved. Tipping has little influence on the outcome of the service as it occurs after that service has been provided and ‘good’ service remains a subjective opinion on behalf of both parties involved.

Insidious insinuations

There are status implications in tipping. The first is that the client has more money than the person they are tipping, which is why the proprietor of an establishment is never tipped. But how the hell do you know how much a head-waiter in a high-end restaurant makes? A pretty packet I assume. And unless you can compare wage slips at the end of the meal, who knows who gets paid more? And similarly, if the proprietor is not to be tipped, how do you ensure you avoid this? How do you know who technically owns the place, or who is simply a hired manager?

There is also a power play at work within the tipping culture, that somehow the tipper has control over the server’s actions because they have control over the tip; as though somebody will jump through hoops over the prospect of a ten quid tip, when they have the potential to make upwards of €100 an hour at the base price.

You must also decide who to tip. In Ireland, because we are always oh-so-polite, particularly in restaurants, unless the service was really incredibly terrible (as in the waiter cursed at a small child at the table and everyone’s food was cold or gone off) we tip. But do you tip all waiters or just the waiters in some establishments? Do you tip at McDonalds? Why not, they are waiters – you order food from them, they go get it and bring it to you to eat.

This becomes more complicated if more than one person provides a service. In a Hair Salon for instance, it is usually the most junior member of staff who is tipped. But how are you supposed to know the pecking order in that industry. If one person washes your hair and does a treatment, another cuts, another does the colour and another dries – who do you decide is the most junior? You could decide that it must be between the person who either washed or dried the hair, although you have no way of knowing that the boss was not just helping out on either task, to speed up the process. And at what level of professionalism do you stop tipping? I mean it might be alright to tip the girl that cuts your hair in the local salon, but do you need to slip Dylan Bradshaw a little something after he finishes the styling, or would that seem a little awkward?

There is a lovely local restaurant here where the waiters are all part owners of the restaurant in which they work, they are certainly not junior staff, so tipping them feels a bit funny because they are the proprietors of a very profitable business and it feels very presumptuous to assume you make more than somebody who owns and runs their own restaurant, and yet to not tip implies there was something wrong.

And herein lies the problem; tipping is no longer evidence of a good service, but rather the lack of tip is evidence of bad service. It has become part of the assumed price. This makes it difficult if you go somewhere regularly, build up a rapport with the owner, refer business to them and thus get ‘mates rates’ or a free coffee with your breakfast or some other little bonus which is their way of rewarding your loyalty – if you then tip are you actually throwing that back in their face, as though you are too good to accept their gesture?


The reality of the situation in Ireland is that the level of tip does not reflect how happy a customer was with the service, their repeat custom does. Here we vote with our feet. An establishment with rude staff providing a poor service won’t see a reduction in the tip jar, they will see the takings of the business as a whole reduce.

This is what highlights the flaw in the initial argument from New York that service industry employees are paid a slightly lower wage than other workers to encourage them to work for tips and provide a better service. This is not what happens in practice. Instead it is an argument which merely allows very profitable organisations pay workers less than the minimum wage. It’s a dangerous precedent, and one I would not like Ireland to follow. A lot of emotion, insinuation and social queues are tied up in the tipping culture, but underneath this, it is imperative that workers receive at minimum a wage which is enough to live on and they should not have to prostitute themselves for tips to make ends meet.

So next time you are handing over a tip for an as-expected service or you are popping €5 in the hand of someone you think is a struggling college student, ask yourself if you are really doing them a favour, or are you actually enabling their employer pay them less money to do a physically tying job, just so you can get a self-satisfied feeling of generosity?


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