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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Has tipping reached a tipping point?

    Tipping is everywhere in the United States – from the tip jars at the local Starbucks to the expected 15 percent gratuity at local restaurants.

    Nowhere else in the world do citizens tip so much for so many different services. In America, tipping everyone from bartenders to mechanics to doormen is standard practice.

    The practice of tipping often elicits debate about how much to tip, who to tip or whether tipping is even appropriate. Just check out Tuesday’s Wildcat article (“”Local servers vent about thrift of UA students””) in which student consumers and student servers diverged on what constituted an appropriate tip. That’s largely because tipping is governed by complex and vague social rules of etiquette rather than a codified standard.

    With employees in the service industry earning more than $27 billion in tips a year alone, there is good reason to question whether tipping actually ensures the good service the practice aims to promote.

    One academic expert on tipping, professor William Lynn at Cornell University, found no significant correlation between the size of the tip people leave with the quality of service they reported receiving. Lynn found exceptional service raised tips only by about 1.5 percent, which, on an average bill in most restaurants is an imperceptible difference.

    So if tipping is no assurance of quality service, why is it still such an integral component of our service industry?

    For one, tipping has become an entrenched social norm that dates back to America’s Gilded Age. Rich Americans accustomed to tipping during their travels in Europe brought the practice to the U.S. to demonstrate their cosmopolitanism by practicing European customs.

    Yet as European tips have shrunk or been entirely replaced by service charges, American tips have steadily grown from the five percent common at the turn of the century. Leisure-information provider Zagat Survey LLC found that Americans tip an average 18.9 percent at restaurants. Consumers not only face increasing tipping percentages but growing numbers of services that now blatantly solicit tips either with tip jars or polite but assertive signs.

    Even though Americans stand alone in tipping a lot in a lot of places, the practice shows no signs of abating despite proven negative effects. Not only is tipping a poor quality control mechanism as mentioned above, but several economists have proposed, contrary to conventional wisdom, that the benefits of tipping cannot be grounded in economic efficiency (such as saving on quality control costs).

    Furthermore, Professor Ian Ayers of Yale University and his team found that tipping may decrease overall social welfare by facilitating prejudice. Ayers studied cab drivers of various minorities and found that customers tended to discriminate against minority cab drivers and cab drivers similarly discriminate against minority passengers, since they tend to leave lower tips.

    This unfortunate trend is pervasive in the service industry, as any waiter or bartender will often admit. Many servers will also come clean about another criticism lobbied against tipping – that it allows for tax evasion. More than half of all cash tips go unreported, which adds up to billions of dollars a year.

    Yet, even though tipping fails on multiple fronts, consumers and service providers alike exhibit a strong aversion to changing to a service charge system. Servers prefer tipping because it gives them the opportunity to make more than they could make with a fixed salary. As a server at a local bar, I know I wouldn’t trade the unpredictability of tips for the security of a salaried income.

    Consumers also favor tipping because they love the freedom to exercise their own discretion. We Americans treasure choice, which explains why over 80 percent of diners claim they would prefer tipping to a set service charge. We also enjoy the satisfaction of leaving a big tip for good service – it demonstrates our wealth and generosity.

    Tipping resonates with American materialism and independence – we like to share our largess as long as we get to choose where it goes. The high value Americans place on autonomy, charity and kindness imply that our tipping culture will remain. Like it or not, the ingrained social custom in many ways embodies the values our country prizes.

    Christina Jelly is a senior majoring in biochemistry and philosophy. She can be reached at

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