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The use of zero-hour contracts in the cause of much controversy. However, there’s another irregular form of remuneration that doesn’t even guarantee full payment for the hours that people do work i.e. tipping.

As Julian Baggini observes in a fascinating essay for Aeon magazine, it’s a very peculiar practice:

“Tipping is confusing, and paradoxical. We tip some people who provide services but not others who work just as hard for just as little pay. It is insulting to leave any tip in Tokyo but offensive not to leave a large one in New York.”

The British seem to be utterly confused as to the going rate for a tip. Is it 10 per cent, 15 per cent or even 20 per cent? 12.5 per cent is traditional – but these days I doubt if more than one-in-eight of us can do the maths.

In theory, a tip is a reward or incentive for good service – but the practice is more complicated:

“It is assumed that the purpose of tipping is to encourage good service but we leave one only after the service has been given, when it is too late to change it, often to people who will never serve us again. Tipping challenges the sweeping generalisations of economists and anthropologists alike.”

“Studies have shown that there is only a weak relationship between customers’ satisfaction with service and the size of their tips.”

Restaurant food is sometimes blamed for the rise in obesity – and tipping might have a role to play in this:

“There are other, more reliable ways of increasing tips than doing a good job, such as ‘upselling’: persuading the customer to order more, or more expensive, food and drink. A larger bill almost always means a larger tip, since most people simply give a percentage.”

Another defence of tipping is that waiting staff rely on their tips to get by. I’m sure that’s true, but it shouldn’t have to be. Would it really bankrupt the restaurant trade to pay enough in regular wages? Countries with thriving restaurant traditions – such as Italy and Japan – manage well enough without tipping.

Baggini offers an intriguing explanation for these cultural differences:

“It seems that the more honourable that restaurant work is in a society, the less that staff are tipped. Hence, Japan is one of the few countries in the world where tipping is actually offensive, because it is seen as dishonouring the server. In Japanese culture, there is a dignity in each person fulfilling his or her role as best as possible. It is not so much that every job has equal status but that every job is given the respect proper to it.”

This is something the British could learn from. Class-based snobbery may be on the backfoot, but job-based snobbery – especially our lack of respect for people who work with their hands – is alive-and-kicking.

Tips, when undeclared, also enable employers to transfer part of their personnel costs to the taxpayer. If they had to pay a living wage to attract and retain staff, then that would reduce the burden on employers who don’t delegate remuneration to their customers.

The case against tipping is a strong one, but whether we’ll ever give it the push is doubtful. Every culture has its little glitches: practices that don’t make much sense and that we could do without, but which endure out of habit – and because they’re not so dreadful that government is compelled to intervene.

Would our politicians take a greater interest if they relied on tips?

7 comments for: Confusing, undignified and dishonest – let’s give tipping the push

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