Purcell: Tips for out-of-control tipping


Tom Purcell is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist. Email him at tom@tompurcell.com.

Tipping demands sure have gotten out of control.

With every purchase you make — at coffee shops, fast-food restaurants, chain stores and more — you are presented with a digital payment screen that asks you to leave a tip.

On one hand, you feel guilted into leaving a tip because the person who just rang up your purchase is staring directly at you.

On the other hand, you wonder how in the world did we get to a place in which workers in so many different roles — even plumbers and mechanics — are suddenly expecting extra money just for doing their jobs.

According to USA Today, the history of tipping has unclear origins but “likely began as a result of the caste system in Europe in the late Middle Ages.”

Prior to 1840, there was no tipping in the United States, according to the book, “Tipping: An American Social History of Gratuities.”

“Wealthy Americans are thought to have brought tipping back to the United States from lavish trips to Europe in the years leading up to the Civil War,” according to the book.

Initially, tipping was considered un-American because it was classist, according to the book “Forked,” which explores tipping practices in the restaurant industry.

After the Civil War, however, “formerly enslaved people were able to find most of their work in food service or as railroad porters, jobs that relied on tips. Many employers who wanted to hire the formerly enslaved also wanted to keep them at a low wage,” says USA Today.

By 1900, every state had passed anti-tipping laws, but by 1926, their governments repealed them or their supreme courts abolished them because they were unconstitutional and difficult to enforce as the practice spread widely, according to Time.

To this day, tipped workers are still not covered by the federal minimum wage because tips are considered part of their hourly income.

Meanwhile, over the past 100 years, tipping has become ingrained in our culture for restaurant workers, cab drivers (and Uber drivers), hotel porters, valets, hairstylists, food delivery drivers and so on.

I’ve always tipped generously to people in these roles.

But, in the past few years, a lot of other workers are demanding tips: the checkout person at the convenience store, airport kiosks and now landlords, who want gratuities for making repairs in the apartment you rent, reports Business Insider.

I think there are three reasons tipping is out of control.

First, our new tipping culture has been enabled by digital transaction systems in which a tip window displays automatically as you pay for a good or service. Unlike the voluntary tip jars they replaced, digital systems make many people feel that a tip of some kind is mandatory.

Second, it’s been enabled by inflation, as some business owners are eager for the rest of us to boost their employees’ pay, so they can attract good workers without having to jack up prices.

Third, it was enabled by the pandemic — the regrettable “gift that keeps on giving” when we happily tipped workers of every kind just for showing up for work.

Yes, the new tipping culture is not so easy to navigate. Personally, I still tip workers in traditional tipping-related jobs generously.

But, as a landlord, there’s no way on Earth I’d expect a tenant to give me a gratuity for repairing a device that I am contractually required to repair.

But I’ll happily accept one if they’re crazy enough to give it to me!

Reader reactions, pro or con, are welcomed at civiltalk@iniusa.org.

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