Tip of the iceberg

Laid Bear

The crowd applauded loudly as the magician slowly slid a razor-sharp sword down his throat. The magician bowed as he finished the act by politely asking us for some money in return for the show. He tried to persuade us to tip by saying that he swallowed an entire sword in his final act, while waiters don’t even chew our food for us, yet we tip them. The crowd surrounding him burst out laughing — he had won their hearts. My friends and I gave him some money as a token of our appreciation. But on my way back to Berkeley, all I could think about was the truth in the magician’s words. His sentiments made me think about the reality of tipping in the United States.

I had traveled around the world, from Southeast Asia and Europe to Japan and Australia, so I certainly didn’t have a problem settling into the United States of America. Yet, there was one thing I found difficult to grasp — the culture of tipping. I remember the first time I had dined in a restaurant in the United States. At the end of the meal, I looked at the check and was perplexed to see a suggested tip amount in percentages of the total bill. The check also included the exact dollar amount for each tipping option. This was so strange to me because in all of the countries I had been to, I had never seen this before. I thought to myself, why was there this compulsion to tip? What were the reasons behind this system?

In India, my parents would typically decide how much to tip by checking how much cash they had on them — depending on that, they’d leave tips of 50, 200 or 400 rupees. Most of the time, they would tip by rounding off the bill. If they were really delighted by the service, they’d leave a little extra cash. I would do this too when I went out with my friends, and we would never pay tips as a percentage of the bill. Sometimes, I’d leave no tip at all because the service charge was already included in the total. I knew that the tip was factored into the bill and found no need to throw in some cash over the counter.

When I traveled to Japan in 2012, I had a completely different experience with that country’s food and tipping culture. The food was absolutely delicious, and the language barrier never came between me and the waiter because of Japan’s unique food-ordering system. We could choose a dish from an array of plastic replicas of dishes displayed on storefronts, so the chef knew exactly what we wanted. The first time we experienced this, we were so amazed with the entire service that my parents wanted to tip the waiter. They tried multiple times to show their appreciation by tipping, but the waiter refused. Later we learned it wasn’t custom to tip people in Japan.

Experiences such as this shaped my understanding of the purpose behind tipping. I had come to think that tipping was to show appreciation and gratitude. After spending two and a half months in this country, I soon learned that the concept of tipping was much more complex. I realized that the underlying reason was the meager wages of service industry workers. Tipped workers are legally held to a lower minimum wage in most states across the United States. Most concerning is that the U.S. federal minimum wage for tipped workers has remained at $2.13 per hour. Rather than businesses paying their workers a living wage, they put the burden on the consumer.

This made me realize that restaurants should adequately pay their workers so that their workers’ livelihoods aren’t dependent on the inconsistency of tips. Tipping should be done as a product of the consumer’s satisfaction and appreciation rather than as a compulsion on the part of the consumer.

In India, we tip based on appreciation of someone’s service, but showing gratitude isn’t only monetary. In restaurants, I would rarely tip, but I would have meaningful conversations with waiters. Small, humanizing gestures such as remembering the seller’s name went a long way to establishing human connections. I always found the Indian buyer-seller relationship to be warmer compared to the cold transaction between the American consumer and supplier.

So, my understanding of the purpose of tipping in the United States has changed a lot. My initial perception of tipping being a costly obligation turned into a concern for the low wages that waiters receive. Businesses need to support their workers instead of having them depend on individual generosity. Overall quality of food and services will go up, and its proportion in the economy will get the required boost. And after all, food industry workers should be treated with respect and fair wages.

Abhishek writes the Friday blog on the financial and economic aspects of being an international student. Contact him at [email protected] .