Words: Daisy Stenham  


The etiquette of tipping...

And that's the curious thing about etiquette of any kind: it's inherently subjective, shape shifting, culturally relative and, therefore, interminably ambiguous. Traditionally in tipping, there’s also a degree of nonchalance and spontaneity; the casual flick of the wrist dispensing loose change or the suave greasing of a bill into someone's palm. This, combined with the fact that the English are so notoriously mortified when it comes to discussing money, only serves to make tipping customs more enigmatic.
You could argue that it’s the very arbitrary nature of tipping that imbues it with a certain cheap thrill. The stakes are high, nothing's certain – all quite redolent of the American free market. And when the win is good, who doesn't love a good tipping tale: the anonymous, rag-dressed millionaire leaves thousands of pounds to the young struggling waitress – all in the manor of a heart-lacerating Will Smith movie.
From a 2016 survey, 35% of the UK admitted to confusion over the difference between tips, service charges and gratuity covers. Who can blame them, when every establishment has its own unique tipping policy?
Some collect tips and distribute them equally to all staff, whereas in other establishments the server gets to keep what they were personally tipped. What's fairer? Should you be rewarded for the effort you solely put in to wait on a table or is that unfair because, perhaps, you were given a better table than your co-worker or you're naturally more gregarious? When you drill down into it, it's a hearty philosophical debate over the redistribution of wealth. Should you run your restaurant like a meritocracy, a Rawlsian egalitarian state, or like a libertarian Wild West?
Subjectivity aside, according to Visit Britain (the UK's tourist board), we should be tipping around 10-15% of the bill. But many of us mistakenly assume that service charge equates to tips, rather than an additional charge, which may not necessarily go to the server. Past salacious scandals around high street restaurants coveting employee tips doesn't help to hamper suspicion around tipping etiquette.
As with anything involving etiquette, it's partly about gaining social approval and avoiding social shame. Risk of shame is a large motivator in tipping – 44% of Brits are too ashamed to remove a tip once it's been automatically added to a bill (Hitachi Capital, 2016).
Michael Lynn (a tipping expert at Cornell's School of Hotel Administration) believes that card tips are putting a new social pressure on customers to pay. Whereas cash tipping was more of a voluntary afterthought, now customers have to press 'no tip' in front of the server, which induces social embarrassment.
It's ironic that the British, so porous to social shame, would be considered such austere tippers. A global tipping index from 2015 stated that the British are the second worst tippers in the world, second to the French – despite the fact that the Europeans invented tipping.
Interestingly, according to a 2016 study by Hitachi Capital, tipping etiquette becomes further relative to physical geography. Diners in Scotland are the most generous (60% leave a 10-20% tip); 13% of people in the east of England and Wales admitted to never leaving a tip; and those in the Midlands are the least likely to tip. Forty-three percent of Londoners leave a 10% tip (compared to 50% in Scotland), 43% tip in the south of England too, and it drops slightly to 41% in the North.
Of course, there are different styles of tippers in life's rich tapestry, and nothing illustrates this better than observing Brits at the end of a group dinner.
The bill arrives and the most ‘Type As’ of the group crowd over it like homing pigeons, speaking in hushed tones akin a political coup. Phone calculators are whipped out, conflicting theories over service charge are debated – one cantankerous bore (often loaded) suggests not paying; cue painful diatribe on why the service wasn't good enough, despite the fact that your waitress is about twelve, hungry-looking and irrepressibly charming – at which point they are normally socially shamed into silenced.
The alphas of the group then proceed to bark military orders at the rest of the table, whereupon the more saccharine of the diners might cream up the waitress with a patronising speech along the lines of, "Does this ALL go to you? We would HATE for you to miss out." These are life's flashy tippers, forking out their bulbous notes in slow-mo, with soft-of-hallowed John of Arc-style affectation.
A 2018 American study (creditcards.com) revealed millennials as the worst demographic of tippers, with 10% of them leaving no tip at a restaurant, compared to 3% from older generations. But when asked, millennials said that they would rather not tip at all and pay more for their meal. Perhaps this is indicative of a social awareness around the growing understanding of the corruptibility of the tipping system and its racist origins – much thanks to research by Saru Jayaraman and Teófilo Reyes at the Restaurant Opportunities Center United.
According to this research, the origins of tipping can be traced back to slavery and are believed, to this day, to be a repressive system. Imported from 17th-century Europe, wealthy Americans brought the tipping custom home in the mid-1800s, and it gained popularity after the Civil War. The US Government sanctioned a petition from restaurants to not have to pay their servers but let them be tipped instead. Many of these servers were recently liberated slaves looking for work in the cities and (considered to have no skills) were trapped into these roles. It is believed that racist restaurant owners encouraged this system as a way to avoid paying their servers wages.
In 1996, the head of the National Restaurant Association persuaded Congress to launch a two-tiered wage system for tipped and non-tipped workers. The tipped minimum wage was $2.13 per hour. Today, in 17 states, the legal minimum wage for tipped workers remains at $2.13 per hour. And now? The tipping system remains unfair and exploitative. Non-white restaurant workers gain 56% less tips than their white co-workers, and 66% of the near six million tipped workers in America are female.
As Jay Porter (a former restaurant owner who stopped tipping at his restaurant in place of an 18% mandatory service charge) explains: "Studies have shown that tipping is not an effective incentive for performance in servers. It also creates an environment in which people of colour, young people, old people, women, and foreigners tend to get worse service than white males." Slate 2013
And, with more female servers but more male tippers, this creates a vulnerable power dynamic; one that isn’t helped by the fact that the restaurant industry reports five times the average number of sexual harassment claims per worker.
Tipping is a divisive social custom, privy to institutional corruption, and it has seemingly lacked coherent clarity since its 17th-century inception – the rules forever rewritten by the subjective beliefs of the beholder. But, perhaps to try to standardise the etiquette is to miss the very point of etiquette – as a guide, a custom, a rule of thumb, open to embellishment and individual interpretation as reflects the subjectivity of people's unique experience and circumstances. And, as research exposes the moral indecencies (past and present) in the culture of tipping, perhaps the millennials, ever enlightened, are on to something – abandon the etiquette all together, it's an outdated custom that favours some and exploits others and, instead, charge more for the service, safe in the knowledge it will be redistributed fairly. It's food for thought.