Past the Tipping Point

Quentin Tarantino is one of Hollywood’s most eclectic auteurs. He made his directorial debut with his 1992 classic Reservoir Dogs. The film begins with a philosophical discussion around a breakfast table where Steve Buscemi’s character is explaining the absurdities that are inherent in the rules of tipping across the country.

To wit, he notes that society has come to expect that we tip certain workers, such as restaurant wait staff, even if they don’t do a terrific job. At the same time, we feel no obligation to give even a pittance to fast food workers, despite the fact that they perform roughly the same task and face comparable work conditions.

The entire conversation is ultimately tangential to the movie’s larger plot of a crime caper gone sour. However, I think that he may have been on to something, even though his proposed solution of not tipping at all takes it too far.

When one steps back and examines tipping objectively, it raises a number of troubling questions about the practice.

For one thing, it’s confusing. Gallup performed a scientific poll of 1,010 adults around the country and found wide discrepancies in the size of the tip that we find appropriate. About one-third said 15 percent is the appropriate size, another third said 20 percent, and the remaining third had a smattering of other responses, including uncertainty over what the baseline even is. Answered varied further depending on the income level and gender of the respondent. Clearly, there is not unanimity on how much we should be leaving for good service.

But the larger problem is that it can lead to inadvertent discrimination. A study in the Yale Law Journal involving over a thousand cabbies found that, even after controlling for other variables, African American drivers were tipped one-third less than white counterparts, and were 80 percent more likely to be stiffed.

This phenomenon is hardly unique to taxi cabs. A study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology surveyed the restaurant industry and revealed that African American servers were, once again, tipped less.

Discrimination may also be gender based. Certain women are tipped more than men; that is to say, women who conform to conventional standards of beauty are tipped more than men. That is not a rational way to determine pay levels for employees.

This isn’t to say that women are always better off. Although certain women may get tipped more on average, the federal minimum wage for tipped workers is set at rate of $2.13 per hour. Admittedly, if the total tips do not equal the standard minimum wage of $7.20 per hour, the employer must make up the difference, but is still incredibly low. Given that women account for two-thirds of all tipped workers, they are disproportionately subjected to subpar wages.

The answer to all this isn’t to stop tipping in protest. Nor is it necessarily to ban tipping altogether. If there is a positive side to tipping, it allows us to punish bad employees and reward exceptional ones. I would propose that the better path is to raise the wages of all tipped employees so that they are not so reliant upon the arbitrary, capricious, and sometimes, discriminatory, whims of their clientele.

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