Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The Tipping Point

By Candice Carboo-Ofulue

The other day, I'm having coffee with a friend at our usual spot in a small town in Mexico when we stumble upon the subject of "tipping". Well, not exactly, my friend is a part-time waitress and I used to work at the same establishment, so the conversation was almost predictable. Anyway, my friend was relaying a funny story about a group of people she had served. To cut a long, hilarious story short and boring: five people walk into the restaurant; order smoothies, appetizers, main courses, and deserts; use the bathroom; compliment the restaurant and its service; ask about things to do and places to go; scrape their collective leftovers onto one plate to take-away and then leave.

But forget to tip.

I say forget because everybody knows that tipping is a universal custom, especially in restaurants. In fact, so common is this practice of leaving a small, monetary symbol of one's gratitude, that if all cultures were reduced to their common denominators, the only things left would be corruption, misogyny and tipping.

But it was my reaction to the tip story that has caused me to ponder. It went something like this: "What! Those bastards. I can't believe they didn't tip. How dare they? I hope they're all killed by flesh eating termites in a slow, unimaginable death."

Genuinely offended. But why?

I'm certain that some explanation can be found in the context: In Mexico, as in the US, the tip is integrated into an employee's contract, so that it subsidies a person's wage. To put it plainly: it's near impossible to survive off wages alone: so tips are one's "bread and butter". But this has nothing to do with the customer, and I'm not so obnoxious to think that the customer should be reproached for Mexico's flawed industrial relations.

No. I just hate it when people don't tip. I think it's rude. I can't explain why I'm so militant about this. I enjoy telling people that the tip is a defiant symbol of direct transaction, in a world riddled with credit cards and third parties. Voluntarily disregarding that many people tip using their credit card, of course. That the tip is a valuable way of rewarding someone's service. It's a polite acknowledgment. A redistribution of wealth. An end to inequality. A solution to climate change.

Or maybe I just tip because it makes me feel good...or less bad.

However paradoxical, I have a value system around tipping. And that's my ponder: Why do we tip? Where does this value system come from?

It seems that everybody has a moral framework around tipping. Some of us feel obliged to tip and some of us refuse to tip. Some of us only tip only when the service was good. While others guiltily slip out without tipping, as the waitress attends other tables. And there are also the percentiles: how often have you heard someone say that they tip 20% if the service was good and 10% if it wasn’t? Where do those percentages even come from? And of course there are the national stereotypes: Americans are good tippers, Italians never tip? I've even heard it said that some countries find tipping offensive.Not Cuba, apparently!

Tipping, for whatever reason, is incorporated into cultures, explained in travel guides, fussed over after dinner and ranted about between friends during coffee. We're all versed on the subject of tipping!

So tell me: What kind of tipper are you?

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