Why We Tip

If the ostensibly heartwarming Tips for Jesus campaign — wherein one Silicon Valley gazillionaire has been leaving massive tips to unsuspecting waitstaffs across the country — comes off to you as a little bit patronizing, that’s because tipping is patronizing by design.

Don’t get me wrong: Tip your servers well or else face judgment as a jerk. But the kindness associated with a big tip belies the classist roots of the very act. So explains Bloomberg View in a September article detailing the history of tipping in America.

Tipping originated within the elaborate play of manners of the European aristocracy. To tip someone was as much about establishing a hierarchy between superior and inferior as it was about compensating a waiter, valet or servant. Giving a tip was a power play, and accepting one was a sign of servility. Such affectations didn’t sit well with Americans.

For that reason, tipping was notably absent in early American history. But following the Civil War, newly rich Americans adopted tipping after traveling across the pond and seeing it in action. The middle class followed their lead and began to tip, also eager to establish servant-master relationships where they could find ’em.

The practice was met with restraint from some Americans, who felt it ran contrary to egalitarian ideals. One 1916 book, the Bloomberg article notes, said that “tipping, and the aristocratic idea it exemplifies, is what we left Europe to escape. It is a cancer in the breast of democracy.”

These attitudes manifested themselves in other ugly ways. Ironically (in that it came from a place of disrespect), black servants may have been more likely to see healthy tips. From the article:

Racists deemed tipping blacks acceptable: it was a way of establishing a hierarchy. But they drew the line at tipping fellow whites. “To give money to a white man was embarrassing to me,” one Southerner transplanted to the North confessed in 1902. “ I felt defiled by his debasement and servility.”

Today tipping is culturally embedded and doesn’t have a whole lot to do, at least consciously, with hierarchies. That’s except, of course, for the hierarchy between restaurateurs and everybody else, as the burden of paying employees essentially falls to customers (Silicon Valley veterans or not). That argument has been made by labor leaders since before the Great Depression, but various efforts throughout the 20th century to do away with tipping proved futile.

Bloomberg View: The Futile War on Tipping

photo credit: Robert S. Donovan