The Compulsory Generosity
The evolution of tipping in America
I’m trying so hard to write like an academic
It is customary to begin deep and thoughtful writings with a grand opening statement purported to capture the reader’s attention and curiosity. I choose not to follow this custom today. In fact, I have chosen the route to begin like it is done in academic presentations.
I have silently wondered why most academic presentations are a bit uninteresting to me. Academics will say “a bit” when in fact they mean “a lot”. They will say: “You are very special,” when what they want to communicate with you is how ordinary you are. Also, if you ever ask a question and you get a “no dear” as a response. I’d advise you should be “a bit” wary. You may certainly not be dear to anyone.
Almost everyone tunes in during an academic presentation, not because of the great speaking prowess of the presenter, or how exciting the research is (maybe sometimes), but because we have no choice. We all have problems, and we silently hope that you say something that will lead us close to solving ours. Also, we all need free pizza.
No free pizza here, but please stay with me.
Why should generosity be made compulsory? Compulsory generosity is a topic particularly dear to me. It’s the culture of tipping. This valuable and respected culture of tipping is one that has significantly lost its value. Yes, it has slowly lost its value in the United States. Gradually, the tipping culture has evolved, moving from gratitude to expectation. Now, this culture is entrenched in entitlement.
A Personal Tale: From Gratitude to Expectation
Let me tell you a story.
As the only male child of my parents with two beautiful sisters, I was seldom allowed to cook. I mean, I cook my meal sometimes but absolutely rare. I depended on my mum’s culinary skills, and my sisters too. To be fair, I had [a lot of opportunities] to ramp up my culinary skills. You’d notice the square brackets used with a lot of opportunities. The truth is I honestly cannot remember having these opportunities, because these opportunities were clashing with other tasks I had to do because I’d definitely choose practicing my guitar over cooking. And so, I got to the United States with subpar culinary skills. The first few months, I lived off eating out.
One fateful day, I was in the lab, extremely famished to the point that I couldn’t see clearly. So I decided to order from a restaurant very close to my lab. It was chicken fried rice and the cost was $9, but that’s not all. The delivery fee was $4 which wasn’t bad at all. I was told I had to pay a service fee also which was $3. “Do you want to donate to a children’s orphanage?” was the next question on my screen. So I donated $3. The tax for my meal was less than a dollar. The total sum was $19. I was getting pissed already. A meal of $9 had suddenly become $19 all because I couldn’t go to the restaurant myself. Fair enough. Then I was asked to tip. In that fine moment of anger, I rounded up the bill to $20 and awaited my food to be delivered.
My food delivery driver finally came. He looked rather sad with a swollen face. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that he could stare down a bear. We exchanged pleasantries. As I reached for my food, he dipped both hands into his pockets like he was reaching for something. I initially thought he was reaching for his keys, to confirm if he misplaced them during delivery especially with the repeated clinking sound I heard. To my utmost surprise, he brought out some coins. I didn’t count them but there was a lot of them. Then he looked at me and said: “Take your coins. They belong to you. This was the tip you gave me. You could have made it at least $1. This is how we survive.” I was mute and frozen. Then he went further saying: “Please I beg you, we are not paid enough”
At that moment, I was emotive. I knew I should have tipped him more but I had to make a choice - either I donate to the orphanage home or give a larger tip. However, nothing would compel me to spend more than $20 for a $9 meal. I preferred donating to an orphanage home. I have once worked in an orphanage home in Nigeria and I understand the struggles they face daily. Maybe I should have split the extra charge equally, I thought. Still, it was my decision to make. However, I wondered: Aren’t tips meant to be reward for a service rendered? Why is there so much expectation regarding the amount of tip? Well, what if I had only $20 left in my account? Does that mean I shouldn’t be allowed to eat? Again, did he ever care if we were both not paid enough? For me, so many unanswered questions. Still, I resolved to myself to tip more since this beautiful culture of tipping for gratitude had now become an expectation.
Tipping: From Expectation to Entitlement
I thought I had seen it all.
Fast-forward to a conference in the heart of San Francisco. Surrounded by my astute lab mates whom have become my best friend, I decided to express my gratitude by treating one of them to lunch. We went to a plant-based burger restaurant. The food was tasty but the bill was shocking. For two burgers and milkshakes, my bill was $97. I was about to pay when I was told that the restaurant had a policy of 40 percent tip. The total bill amounted to $135.8. I was shocked. The shock wasn’t coming from the bill but from the daylight robbery without having to hold a gun. The boldness. The confidence. I spoke with the lady to whom I was to pay and asked her why the 40%. She said, “That is how it has always been.” To avoid drama and unnecessary exchanges, I paid. It is in moments like this that I remember the words of a famous academic who once said that the quickest and fastest way to become impoverished is by unbridled generosity. While generosity is an important virtue to have, it shouldn't be used as a mechanism to pay little wages or be leveraged to exploit customers' good intentions.
Reflections on Tipping
The tipping culture in America has slowly moved from gratitude to expectation and now currently to entitlement. This change, however unpleasant, is the sad reality. Instead of focusing on resenting or encouraging confrontation about the size of a tip given, we should focus on advocating for a fair wage such that it is independent of the whims of customer’s generosity.
Generosity or tipping shouldn't be a social obligation. It also shouldn't be an expectation but rather a genuine appreciation for a service rendered.
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