More Stories About Tipping

(Photo: Jeff Turner)

Our latest podcast, “Should Tipping Be Banned?,” has stirred up a lot of response. Below are a few interesting e-mails from listeners. First one is from Spencer Doren:

Like Levitt, tipping makes me uncomfortable. He’ll be happy to know that Sushi Yasuda (my favorite sushi in NYC) doesn’t accept tips in order to stay true to Japanese tradition. In Japan, tipping isn’t practiced as it is considered rude.

A listener named Heather Rush doesn’t like tipping reform at all (and plainly didn’t know me back when I bussed tables, and worse):

As someone who has spent her whole life working in an industry that offers servers no job security, tolerates rampant sexual harassment, long unregulated work days and no fringe benefits, your suggestion that tipping should be banned because it’s unfair seems trite. Try standing on wet mats for 12 hours while enduring abusive customers, crooked managers, criminal owners, no sick leave, no unemployment and no job security and then I’ll listen to your musings on what the real value of a tip is to the people that served you dinner. Until your first bus-boy shift, however, perhaps you ought to research the real cost of service and why people are content to ignore the “unfairness” of an entire industry so long as their drinks and appetizers arrive on time.

The most expansive response to date is from Kasim Cody Sulaimana:

First let me give you a little background on myself.  I am 32 years old, Jamaican/Malawian male (so people view me as African-American when they see me).  My parents met while they were in graduate school and both of them are immigrants.  My father is a nuclear engineer and my mother was an economist.  I mention my father’s job because it influenced where I grew up.  I grew up for 8 years in Seoul Korea, 2 in New York, 2 in Malawi, 2 in Jamaica, 2 in Arizona and 2 in Chicago.  I also traveled a lot growing up. I  graduated from UoI with an Economics major and a comp sci/stat minor… and I also have a graduate degree in Health Informatics. I currently work at WebMD as a Product Manager.  Ok, so with that out of the way let’s get onto the info!
 
I was really listening intently to your podcast because it is something I had thought about constantly in college.  While in college at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, I worked at Jimmy Johns.  Jimmy Johns is essentially a fast food restaurant that sells subs.  I worked primarily as a delivery driver.  I was paid minimum wage, and the majority of my money would come from tips.  I did this for about a year.  One thing I was keenly made aware of very early on was that different races/genders tipped very differently.
 
Your podcast caught my ear when you were trying to figure out why sometimes Latinos and Asians show up tipping less than whites, and why they sometimes break even and I am pretty sure I know why.  (I have no statistical evidence to back me up so bear with me)  I would point to the groups within the racial group.  There is a big difference between an Asian (let’s say Korean) who is native first-generation from Korea, and an American-born one.  They do not share the same views on a wide range of topics and are almost night and day different.  The American-born one will generally share the same thoughts about tipping as American whites do in the U.S., while the native Korean will not.  Essentially the ones that have been assimilated into American culture (by birth mainly) share the ideas of tipping.
 
I saw the constantly at Jimmy Johns more so than the professional degree.  Middle Eastern doctors would not tip or would barely tip at all (the ones not from here) whereas their counterparts who were American-born would tip well.  College kids in general tipped me well.  The same went with Koreans.  Native Koreans would not tip, whereas the younger Koreans tipped just fine.  Within each culture there is that divide that separates what each does and each others view on tipping.
 
My father doesn’t tip unless he absolutely has to … and it took him awhile to get to that point (he is from Malawi).
 
In a summary, here is what I came to at Jimmy Johns (no stats to back it up, just what I saw)
 
1. Whites tip better than blacks by far.
2. Generally no extra tip for increased speed of delivery unless you get there really fast.
3. Decreased tip for really bad speed of delivery or faulty product.
4. On super large orders (over $300) it depends on which profession.  Doctors routinely gave $3 tips on a $500 order whereas delivering that same order to any other large group would net close to a $40-50 tip.
5. When dealing with minorities (Middle Eastern, Latino, Asian) it depends on if they are first-gen or native born.  Native-born tip nice, 1st-gens do not.
6. Lawyers tip well
7. Women tip me better than men
8. I’ve actually found that for well-off people, I am more likely to be stiffed on tip than I am by poor people.  Poor will still give me something  but it was very highly likely that the really well off would leave no tip.
 
In a nutshell I would challenge you to look at each subculture rather than the entire racial group as a whole.  I think your findings would become more consistent.  Thanks and I hope this helps! 

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  1. Aella says:

    As a student, I worked in many ethnic restaurants. I should clarify I am from Montreal, Quebec, a French city in Canada. French people were actually the worst tippers. Black guys always left the best tips and white girls rarely tips. Now that I am a nurse, I get tipped in coffee and donuts, just as valuable as money

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  2. Greg says:

    Does Heather realise that tipping isn’t standard the world over yet the job of serving of food food etc is cross cultural and having worked similar jobs in the uk where tipping outside of formal restaurants is rare and I say: tough, tipping is still wrong and done in America to the point of absurdity.

    It’s all ingrained cultural attitudes to certain jobs. I bet she wouldn’t tip at McDonald’s. They famously started off by accepting no tips but haven’t advertised that in decades because it is the norm for that place now. They work just as hard as servers in other places just in a slightly different way so why do you feel ok about not tipping there. Is it just because you pay first?

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    • RJ Roy says:

      In addition, while a lot of those shitty conditions are a part of the industry as a whole, I believe that some of them are MORE prevalient in tipping-based jobs, as the understanding there became “Well, we’re paying you little, and not giving you benefits, but that’s because tips MIGHT MAYBE be way more then what we’re paying you. You can just handle that other stuff yourself, then, right?”

      And that’s where the idea of tipping being unfair comes from.

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      • Thalia says:

        The actually is very clear. You can pay tipped employees a much lower minimum wage (as low as $2/hour in some states) BUT if their total hourly compensation including tips is below minimum wage, their employer must make up the difference.

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    • Thalia says:

      Because US law as it currently stands provides a lower minimum wage to tipped employees (which does not include the employees at McDonalds where tips are not expected), I expect everyone to tip. For what it’s worth, I have never worked in the food business, but I support a living wage.

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  3. LD says:

    This reminds me of the scene from Reservoir Dogs (warning: language)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4sbYy0WdGQ

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  4. Janet296 says:

    While most people will tip the standard 15 to 20%, there will always be people who will tip nothing. The problem with tipping is that it can’t be forced unless it is a large group. You are still depending on people to be generous and some just aren’t. I would rather have a livable wage than depend on people’s generosity.

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    • Mike B says:

      From the customer’s perspective tipping functions as a hidden fee in the same way Spirit airlines can have low fares yet wind up costing more than average because they get people on the back end. Yes it is technically optional, but there are all sorts of mechanisms including cultural norms and implied threats (watch Curb your Enthusiasm), that enforce it. It’s irritating not to be able to easily determine prices by looking at the menu and I’m sure its intentional to get people in the door with a low list price and then pull a psychological switcheroo with a hidden fee.

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      • Thalia says:

        It’s not hidden, though. It’s like saying the property tax is a hidden part of the cost of buying a house. Nope, any even minimally informed customer will know that the cost of a tip should be added to the total on the menu.

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      • Mike B says:

        If it’s not on the Menu then its not salient, especially in terms of small amounts of money. It’s why automobile efficiency always took a back seat to sticker price and why people buy inferior goods at WalMart even if they fail in a fraction of the time.

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  5. Enter your name... says:

    I don’t think Heather’s thought this through.

    Right now, she’s putting up with a lot of structural crap (pathetic nominal wage, no sick leave, no benefits, customers who feel their tip entitles them to act like jerks, etc.) to get the tip.

    Would she work this job if it weren’t for the money currently paid as tips? No. Would *anyone* put up with this? No.

    So if tipping were banned, what would happen? The job wouldn’t go away, because the restaurant owners need people to do this work. The job also wouldn’t be paid at the current pathetic nominal wage, because nobody would take the job at that price. Instead, the compensation structure would change. The hourly wage would go up. Paid sick leave and paid vacation would be added (they’re not offered now, because the customers are mostly paying you, not the restaurant). Customers might even feel like they weren’t entitled to abuse the staff, since they weren’t paying you directly.

    So to the Heathers of the US: if you want a better wage, paid sick leave, and other benefits, then campaign for the end of tipping.

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    • Caleb B says:

      @Enter your name

      Yes, yes. If you just eliminated tipping then restaurants will give everybody the same wage they are making with tips, including the gross-up needed bc they don’t pay taxes on all their tips….they’d get paid sick time, paid vacation, 401(k), healthcare…man, it will be utopia if we just got rid of tips.

      Somehow, it has been the tipping that has been the reason unskilled labor with zero educational requirements and no barrier to entry have not had fringe benefits. I guess all those Wal-Mart cashiers are really glad they don’t get tips!!!

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      • Enter your name... says:

        Waiting tables is not an unskilled job, especially at high-end restaurants.

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    • James says:

      “…if you want a better wage, paid sick leave, and other benefits, then campaign for the end of tipping.”

      Or you could use the income from your service job to e.g. pay your way through college or a trade school, and get a better job.

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      • Aidian Holder says:

        Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  6. BSK says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • James says:

      I think his point is that it depends on culture, not racial/ethnic demographic factors. If you were an American kid raised poor and a good ways back in the hills, and so had never eaten in a restaurant until you went off to college/military, how would you learn when & how much to tip? Might you not be puzzled to see people leaving money on the tables when they’ve finished eating?

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      • BSK says:

        Which is a totally viable theory. But don’t make that point and then make a list of what whites do and what blacks do. It’s just sloppy.

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  7. Dustin says:

    Moved to Miami a few months ago, and one interesting thing I’ve noticed here seems to support Kasim’s comments. There’s a lot of Europeans and South American visitors here, particularly in Miami Beach. Its nothing to go for a walk and hear people walking by speaking German, French, Spanish, English, and a variety of other languages I can’t identify all in one 15 minute stroll.

    Tipping is very different in both Europe (where not tipping is the norm where I’ve visited) and South America (where 5-10% can be quite generous and its not really expected).

    Most restaurants here that cater to tourists or visitors have a service charge of 18% added to the bill. But if you keep visiting places and start to find more “locals” places, they don’t have a service charge. I even know some places that add a service charge if they don’t know you.

    Again, no data, but it seems that the service industry here has noticed the same things that Kasim noted and has reacted.

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  8. Ryan says:

    I think the movie “Waiting” really sums up the serving experience.

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