I don’t get tipping.

No, I mean, I understand what it is, why we do it, where the money comes from, what it means, and all that. I even know how to calculate the damn things. You won’t catch me using a tip calculator in a nice restaurant.

I just don’t understand why it exists in the first place.

To get started, let’s run through the facts of tipping, so we’re all on the same page.

  • People tip people in certain jobs because they don’t make enough money.
  • The amount you tip is directly related to the quality of service you receive.
  • Tipping is required by common courtesy.

Now that we’ve laid out the basic tenets, let’s take a closer look.

People tip people in certain jobs because they don’t make enough money.

On the face of it, this seems simple enough. Some people don’t make much money. They should make more money. So as their customers, we give them money to make up the disparity.

However, there are lots of hidden assumptions here. First, there’s the assumption that the person being tipped really should make more money. I think you can only decide this on a case by case basis, and it’s really a separate issue, so I won’t address it here.

Even if we set that aside, the second hidden assumption is that tipping is the right solution to the problem. This is irrational at best. If you thought you didn’t make enough money, you’d probably do one of three things: ask for a raise, ask for a promotion, or take a new job with a higher salary.

However, I highly doubt that you’d personally ask your customers for more money. Say you work for an entertainment law firm, and Disney is one of your clients. Would you call up Michael Eisner and say, “You know, Mike, Christmas is coming up, and money is tight…would you mind sending me a few thousand dollars so I can get presents for my husband and kids?”

NO! You would simply raise your hourly rate, or add an expense to his bill. Note the difference here. You’d get the extra money as part of your fee, your salary, as opposed to him giving it to you directly. This is how people earn money in the real world. It’s efficient, it’s simple, and we all know how it works.

The amount you tip is directly related to the quality of service you receive.

Again, this seems simple at first glance. If people do their job well, they deserve more money than if they do it poorly. What’s the catch?

First, why are people doing their jobs poorly at all? Give me a reason, other than plain laziness or indifference, why people would choose to do their jobs poorly. Other than a few convoluted situations you only see on bad sitcoms, I can’t think of any.

Regardless, what we’re doing is rewarding people who do their jobs better than average. Again, this is something most workplaces handle with salary, not tips. Why does Barry Bonds make more money than, say, your kid who plays in Little League? Rest assured, it’s not because Barry has a pretty face. It’s because he does his job well. However, if Barry hits three homers into McCovey Cove, how many fans slip him a twenty or a fifty with a “Thanks, man” after the game?

Tipping is required by common courtesy.

I don’t have much to say about this. Common courtesy requires lots of good things – holding open doors, saying “God bless you,” letting other drivers in during a merge, etc. However, I think common courtesy dropped the ball on this one. Tipping just doesn’t make sense to me, period.

Unfortunately, this is probably the single biggest reason that we won’t get rid of tipping any time soon. Miss Manners notwithstanding, there’s no central authority on common courtesy, so it’s more or less impossible to change. We may not like it, but we’re definitely stuck with it.

So, what’s my point here?

Restaurants, hotels, cab companies, pay your workers more and charge your customers more. Customers, stop tipping. This would not be a big change. We’d probably pay about the same amount for dinner or a taxi, and waiters and cabbies would probably make about the same salary. But our day-to-day lives would be simpler and easier. I don’t know about you, but that would definitely make me happier.

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