Obligatory tipping fails to support waitstaff

Tipping the service staff at restaurants is an American reality as deeply ingrained into our culture as apple pie or exorbitant incarceration rates. The fact is, if you want to be viewed as a decent human being in America, there is an obligation to pay an uncertain amount beyond the bill to the people who worked to bring you your food. Many are happy to make this contribution, as servers generally make small wages and need the surplus income, but in a recent College Humor video, comedian Adam Conover questions the entire practice. Why not demand that restaurants pay their staff a fair wage, rather than put the responsibility on the customer?

The question arises in a video series called Adam Ruins Everything, in which the aforementioned comedian tackles the legitimacy of generally accepted practices – such as wedding rings or circumcision. Conover delves into both the history and current value of the practice. He claims that tipping was initially a response of convenience for employers; they would ask that their employees take “bribes” offered by some customers for better or faster service. He argues that this became an excuse for employers to pay their staff less and resulted in the modern tipping culture that we currently hold. With regard to the absurdity of the business model, he suggests they simply pay the staff more.

“I mean, that’s what every business has done since the dawn of time. When you buy a pair of jeans, they’re just 50 bucks. They’re not like, ‘That’ll be $40 and you decide if the stock boy eats tonight!'”

The video and its light-hearted take on the societal expectation of tipping sheds light on the strangeness of the practice. The video contains depictions of patrons dealing with the more banal aspects of tipping, such as deciding on the percentage to pay or even doing that basic math in front of a date or friends. More than just illustrating that tipping is inconvenient for the patron, the video does outline how it is ultimately detrimental for the employees as well – not only because it serves to lower their working wage, but also because it offers an illusion that their quality of work is quantified by pay. Ultimately, studies suggest that server performance has little to no impact on how much of a tip is given.

The most difficult part of discussing tipping as a phenomenon is the same problem that arises in the difficulty of talking about pretty much any social dynamic, in that it is tricky to separate individual people from the broader discussion. For many, suggesting an abolition of tipping is equivalent to taking money from the hands of the wait staff, but the ultimate suggestion is, of course, to raise their wage as a substitution for tips. This is still hard for some to take in, and almost any discussion of tipping tends to make those arguing Conover’s position to seem selfish or stingy.

Ultimately though, tipping is a somewhat misguided attempt at supporting servers. Although it seems right to give money to the waiter from the individual perspective, it puts undue pressure on them to perform for a basic wage. If we are to make the restaurant experience better for all, it may be best to take a cue from the rest of the world and phase out tipping and substitute it with fair pay.

Conlan Campbell ’18 campbe1@stolaf.edu is from Burnsville, Minn. His major is undecided.