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Web Exclusive: Why Do We Tip?

Why Do We Tip?

By Jana Llewellyn

When I started working in the city, I found it hard each day to witness the struggles of the poor and homeless in subways or on street corners. When one of them asked me for money for a meal, my heart spun into turmoil. I would give them money, I told myself, if it was easily available, but any cash I had was buried deep inside my wallet in my larger purse. The words I’ve heard since childhood always rose up to try and squelch my guilt: Don’t give homeless people money, they’ll use it for drugs or alcohol. I never appreciated that logic, though. Who cared what they used it for? I thought. They were human, suffering, and asking for help.

These awkward moments persist for me. One day in the early months of my new job, a man got on the train and held a cardboard sign in front of his face that said “Hungry. Need food.” Everyone looked elsewhere until he left. At rush hour, another man “prayed to God”—his very loud words—that someone would give him money for a meal. People remained silent and waited for him to leave. One day, walking up from the subway in the morning, a woman looked at me and asked me for spare change while gripping the stroller handles where a child—her child, I assumed—was sleeping. From the corner of the building, I felt a man’s eyes and knew it wasn’t safe. I didn’t give her anything except my sympathy. All day, I thought about the child.

Friends who worked in the city for years told me that I’d eventually get used to people asking for money, that it would be easier to ignore them. But I didn’t feel comforted by the idea that I’d soon be averting inquiries like everyone else and heading into Starbucks to spend four dollars on a latte.

Around the same time, I started to notice tip jars. Everywhere.

Tipping is another issue that causes me turmoil. At the hair salon, for instance, I’m not only supposed to tip the stylist, but also the girl who washes my hair. I’m not sure why I’m tipping, exactly: is it because hairstyling is a creative endeavor? Because washing someone’s hair is somewhat of an intimate gesture? If I order from one of the new grocery services and have delivery to my house, I should tip or risk looking cheap. Clearly, if I pay a delivery fee, I can sacrifice a few extra dollars for the driver, right? At a recent trip to Savannah, Georgia, with my husband, we were encouraged not only to tip the doorman and pedicab driver, but also the museum docent (who told us college was expensive) and the restaurant singer, who walked around singing the blues while visitors ate. And around Philadelphia, I see tip jars lurking front and center on the counters at coffee shops, smoothie bars, ice cream parlors, and on the ledges of food trucks. Plenty of people drop their bills and extra change in for a cashier who merely does her job. Meanwhile, poor people mill from outside benches to cement stairways asking for money to eat.

Why do we tip people who hand us our coffee and muffins, but ignore those who are hungry?

On the one hand, I know that tipping is a symbol of appreciation for a job well done; but on the other, it’s an ego boost for the tipper, an unnecessary display of wealth. (Those who work in the service industry and earn generous tips might disagree with me.) I prefer to smile and say, “Thank you” for a service performed, because tipping a person for a job they’re already supposed to do seems more like charity than appreciation.

Mostly, it frustrates me that the employer of these establishments, rather than rewarding workers with benefits and higher pay, shifts the responsibility of compensation to the consumer. Shouldn’t I save my charity for organizations that need it? Or the people—outside retail establishments, in dirty clothes and sometimes torn-up wheelchairs—who directly ask?

Many of us who are nonchalant about dropping change and dollar bills into tip-jars are also indifferent toward the needy in our midst, those who don’t have jobs due to illness, addiction, social prejudices, or myriad other reasons. I don’t know how to fully rectify this disparity in treatment on a personal level. The only thing I’ve decided to do is carry a granola bar in my purse in case someone tells me he’s hungry, buy a coffee or danish for the woman on the bench outside the Starbucks who asks for spare change. I can become informed about the locations of homeless shelters and food banks and direct the train riders to the nearest one if they are, indeed, desperate for food. (I already figured out that the young man loudly praying to God was not truly interested in a meal, when I told him where he could get one.) And I’ll continue to greet workers on food trucks and at coffee counters the same way I greet anyone who addresses me: with warmth and a smile.

Mostly, though, I hold onto my change.

Jana Llewellyn is associate editor at Friends Journal.


Posted in: October 2012: Wall Street, Main Street, and Meetinghouse Road

6 Responses to Web Exclusive: Why Do We Tip?

  1. E October 2, 2012 at 8:17 am #

    I understand all that you are saying, but then I remember that the minimum wage for “tipped employees” is $2.63 in a state where the minimum wage for non-tipped workers is $8.00.

  2. Sharon Hoover October 3, 2012 at 10:55 am #

    Many of us, fortunately, have never had a job waitressing to make ends meet. Or, a job making beds in a motel or hotel. Not only is minimum age for many service jobs lower than the “advertised” minimum wage; there is no way anyone can live on minimum wage in the United States. In addition, many service workers are paid “under the table,” especially waitresses in my experience. I try to always tip. I remember when, female and uneducated, I lived on those tips.

    • [email protected] October 3, 2012 at 4:35 pm #

      E and Sharon,
      When I was writing this piece, I found it really hard to clarify why I felt uncomfortable with tip jars. Mostly, I think it’s because it suggests that thanking people and treating them warmly is not enough; that I also need to compensate them with money.

      I had originally included in this piece that tipping in restaurants (and cabs, for that matter) feels different because I know that waiters and waitresses make only $2.63 an hour. When I waited tables, I thought it was outrageous that I could make only $10 for a whole lunch shift.

      Mostly, the American culture of tipping seems very unusual to me in light of the way other cultures treat their workers. It makes me feel very out of sync.

      • E October 7, 2012 at 5:04 pm #

        I do agree about tip jars — they feel different, since the money is pooled, and not given just to the person who waited on me.

  3. Linda Lotz October 16, 2012 at 9:57 am #

    Perhaps an article focusing on low-wage jobs would be helpful, to sort out a variety of themes including those addressed in this comment thread.

    Also to be considered:

    Contrasting the profits/wealth of employers with workers’ low wages and few if any benefits. The Restaurant Opportunities Center in Philly just released a study showing that 62.1% of local restaurant workers fall below the poverty line for a family of three. 92.8% of all local restaurant workers do not have earned sick days, forcing many to come to work sick. ROC is working locally and nationally to promote better business practices including better wages.

    Wage theft — Some restaurant owners consistently fail to pay staff overtime, health care and other benefits. Recently, Philadelphia and New York City Councils adopted legislation banning owners from requiring employees to pay for credit card fees. Some of the wealthiest restaurant owners in both cities were found to be engaging in this practice.

    As our nation continues to see growth in the service sector, these kinds of issues become critical to larger numbers of vulnerable workers.

    • [email protected] October 16, 2012 at 11:45 am #

      Linda, I totally agree! Aside from the problem of a minimum wage that is impossible to live on, I can’t believe the practice of underpaying restaurant workers has been and still is legal.

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