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NPR on Why We Think We Tip (We're Wrong)

NPR on Why We Think We Tip (We're Wrong)
T. Nguyen

When it comes to tipping a server at a restaurant, do you: (a) always leave 20% of your bill, as that is the socially proper thing to do; (b) leave greater than the standard 20%, because you too are a server/barista/bartender/etc. and intimately know the pain of bad tippers; (c) leave nothing, as you do not believe in the practice; or (d) leave a tip that you think best captures, in monetary terms, the quality of service you received from your server?

Based on a recent segment on NPR's Planet Money, most people believe that tipping should, in theory, reward good service and punish bad and so choose (d); it is not uncommon for those who work in the service industry to choose (b) and tip generously, regardless of the quality of service they actually received; and apparently only Mr. Pink is ballsy enough to choose (c). As it turns out, Mr. Pink is the only honest one amongst us.

Before we get to the answer, a few theories of the origins of tipping are explored in the program. One traces the 16th century coffeehouse practice of posting none-too-subtle "To ensure promptness" signs next to coin boxes. Not unlike today, those who could afford to pay more were served first; best of luck to the person who could only afford to pay the actual price of the service offered. Another theory posits that one tipped to alleviate the guilt of gleefully engaging in the luxury of wining and dining at the expense of those whose job was to provide such extravagances. Since then, the idea of tipping, while vehemently protested over the years, has taken strong hold in this country; we tip everyone from servers to the person who cuts our hair.

This behavior baffles economists, as experts on the program point out that tipping makes no rational sense. We don't really reward good service with better tips; most of us tip the standard percentage regardless of the quality of service received. Tipping based on the total amount of the bill has no connection to the service provided; uncorking a $20 bottle of wine, for example, is no more difficult than uncorking a $50 bottle.

Other random factors (i.e., whether the sun is out) make just as much, if not more, of an impact on the amount a customer will tip a server. The economics also don't explain why custom dictates that money handed to the server is considered a tip while money handed to, say, a pharmacist is considered a bribe. Or why we're concerned with things like tip coordination.

As it turns out, we probably tip for the same reason why we go to the office parties we hate going to, or why we buy a cup of ice-cream after a few samples, even if we disliked everything we tasted: guilt. The emotional cost of not conforming to social mores, apparently, is greater than the tangible cost of the tip itself. The answer to the above multiple choice question, then, is (a).

Now for the essay: is a mandatory gratuity charge better than our practice of tipping, or is it, like universal health care, just one step in the wrong direction towards -- gasp -- socialism?

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