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Tipping Is Immoral

But, for now, it’s all we've got.

A tip screen displays three options for tipping, with a tip basket next to the screen.
Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images
A Square payment device at a coffee shop in the Union Market district in Washington, D.C.

Is tipping a matter of etiquette or ethics? Confusion on this point animates what Rachel Wolfe, writing last week in The Wall Street Journal, identified as a backlash against the widespread adoption of point-of-sale tablet computers inviting customers to add a gratuity to all manner of purchases. The consumer revolt against this practice coincides with a political movement in states and cities to eliminate a “tipped” minimum wage set lower than the usual minimum wage.

According to the Journal and a separate report from Business Insider, people are lately tipping less. Citing payroll company Gusto’s survey of small and medium-size leisure and hospitality providers (not including people who work in restaurants), Wolfe reported that in November the average hourly tip was $1.28, down 7 percent from the previous year’s $1.38. A September survey by the restaurant software company Toast reported that tip amounts in restaurants with table service fell from an average 19.7 percent of the check in the second quarter of 2023 to 19.4 percent of the check in the third quarter, and that this was the lowest Toast recorded since the start of the pandemic. Tips at fast-food service restaurants, Toast reported, have been dropping since 2018, when they averaged 16.8 percent of the check; in the third quarter they were 16.1 percent.

Exasperatingly, there’s competing evidence that suggests the opposite: people tipping not less but more. In July, Gusto reported that tips had been raising hourly workers’ pay by 25 percent or more since 2020, even as pay itself rose; in 2019 and 2020 tips were raising pay 20 or 21 percent. Why the discrepancy? Perhaps because inflation, which until recently was outrunning wage increases, was bloating restaurant checks faster than it was boosting food servers’ pay, so that tips made up a greater percentage of the still-meager total. Or perhaps we’re seeing redistribution of tips from more traditional venues to new ones. Performing arts didn’t used to be a big tipping category, but apparently performers at music and theater festivals receive 22 percent of their pay through tips, up from 9 percent as recently as 2020—possibly a result of the pandemic-era proliferation of virtual tip jars and Q.R. codes on programs. Everybody’s a busker.

Perhaps it’s safest simply to conclude that traditional tipping patterns are being disrupted in unpredictable ways, raising workers’ expectations and making consumers grumpy. The feeling even has a name: “tipping fatigue.” A June survey by the financial services company Bankrate found that 66 percent of adults held a negative view of tipping. Forty-one percent said businesses should just pay workers better, and 32 percent said they don’t like being presented with those Goldilocks-like tablet screens suggesting three possible tips. Thirty percent said tipping culture was out of control, but only half as many (16 percent) said they’d be willing to pay higher prices to make tipping go away.

It was simpler back when there were rules. I keep on my office bookshelf, mainly for anthropological reference, a copy of The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette, as updated (not very much) in 1978 by Letitia Baldridge, social secretary to first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. When you stay the weekend in a house with butler, maid, and cook, should you tip them? Yes: $10 for the cook, $10 for the maid if she’s the only one (otherwise $5), and nothing for the butler because he didn’t likely do anything for you except open the door. In 2023 dollars, that’s $50 to the cook and maid, or would be if people still had cooks, which they don’t, and maids still worked weekends, which they don’t. In a similar vein, on a yacht you tip the stewards $10 to $20 each (i.e., $50 to $100), and if the owner isn’t on board you should give the captain a “nice gift.” On a more practical plane, you tip 20 percent in restaurants: 15 percent for the waiter and 5 percent for the “captain,” or headwaiter. (Today’s consensus is you just tip 20 percent and don’t worry who it’s going to.)

But of course neither Amy Vanderbilt (1908–1974) nor Letitia Baldridge (1926–2012) ever knew today’s world, where you’re invited to tip at a retail checkout counter where the only service is to ring up a charge and perhaps bag a few items, or at a self-checkout machine where no service is provided at all. Tipping is in effect a new form of “junk fee,” with the only difference that paying or not paying is left to the customer’s tortured conscience. Even when you’re promised the proceeds will go to employees, the boss is clearly shifting some labor costs onto the customer, which is infuriating. The greatest abuse is the subminimum “tipped” wage, introduced in 1966 as the political price for extending minimum-wage protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act to hotel and restaurant workers, who previously had been excluded. Back then the tipped minimum was 50 percent of minimum wage. Today it’s 29.4 percent, thanks to a deal decoupling the tipped minimum from minimum-wage increases brokered in the 1990s by future Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain when he was president of the National Restaurant Association.

Today, etiquette, to the extent it persists, dictates that you absolutely should tip just about anybody who asks unless the person who asks makes more than you do. But the ethical case for tipping (as opposed to the employer simply paying workers more money and raising prices accordingly) has never been strong. The tipper is invited to use money to pass judgment on the quality of the service they receive. No worker’s livelihood should be hostage to such whims. That may sound like a modern opinion, but tipping was held to be sufficiently condescending at the turn of the twentieth century that you risked insulting a white man if you offered him a tip; tips were perceived as being for Black porters and other Black servants, who (Fourteenth Amendment or no Fourteenth Amendment) were not widely recognized as the white man’s equal. The race taboo fell away, but not tipping’s expression of class superiority; in 1916 one William R. Scott, in an anti-tipping diatribe titled The Itching Palm, observed:

In an aristocracy a waiter may accept a tip and be servile without violating the ideals of the system. In the American democracy to be servile is incompatible with citizenship.

Every tip given in the United States is a blow at our experiment in democracy. The custom announces to the world that at heart we are aristocratic, that we do not believe practically that “all men are created equal”; that the class distinctions forbidden by our organic law are instituted through social conventions and flourish in spite of our lofty professions.

One clear reform to reduce customers’ tipping leverage and force employers to shoulder their burden is to eliminate the tipped minimum wage. That may happen next time Congress gets a shot at raising the minimum wage above the current measly $7.25 an hour, where it’s been stuck, unconscionably, since 2009. In the meantime, seven states have eliminated the tipped minimum wage: Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. In addition, Washington, D.C., eliminated the tipped minimum by voter referendum in 2022 and is phasing in an increase to the full minimum wage. (The current hourly wage minimum in D.C. is $17.) Chicago followed suit earlier this year; the hourly minimum wage there is $15.80.

In D.C., many restaurants are introducing a 20 percent service charge, the equivalent of the French “servis compris”; European restaurateurs figured out long before their American counterparts that tipping culture is retrograde. But it’s still advisable to check with your waiter to make sure the money goes to staff and isn’t offsetting previous wages or benefits; D.C. law requires that restaurants disclose how such fees are spent, but there have been abuses. If the financial arrangement isn’t clear, then my own etiquette guide says you’re still stuck paying a 20 percent tip.

The same goes for other establishments where you’re asked to furnish a tip. With the touch screens, you should always pick at least the middle option and, if you can, the third and biggest tip. When the touch screen is at a self-service counter, though, feel free to pay no tip at all. I feel certain La Vanderbilt and La Baldridge would back me up on this.