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America, more than any other country, is attached to its tipping culture. Not only do Americans tip the most — and on more occasions — but tipping here is a marker of social status and moral character even more than it’s a thank you for high-quality service.
“People who receive tips tell us that most of the time people are tipping because they don’t want to seem like a jerk,” said Holona Ochs, an associate professor of political science at Lehigh University. Ochs co-authored a book called “Gratuity: A Contextual Understanding of Tipping Norms from the Perspective of Tipped Employees,” which drew on interviews with hundreds of workers.
High adherence to tipping norms might be getting tested these days, with the phenomena of “tip creep” and “tipflation” frustrating customers when they’re asked to tip more and more on top of already-high prices.
Many customers have also been asked to tip when they haven’t had any interaction with a human worker at all. If you tip at a self-checkout kiosk at the airport or a self-serve beer fridge at a sports event, where does the money go?
And, as Ochs asks, “if you’re tipping in an automated process, who knows if you’re a jerk or not?”
Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal talked to Ochs about how far American tipping culture could go as our service interactions become more and more automated. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: This is, in a lot of ways, a behavioral economics thing, right? Because we are certainly in this country conditioned to tip when presented with a summary of the bill, right?
Holona Ochs: Absolutely. I mean, if you only think about this ritual in a transactional sense, we can think about it behaviorally. And we can think about it only as an economic practice or a part of our economic system. But there’s also a part of this ritual that’s very human; that’s the underexplored aspect and that’s the aspect I’d like to talk about today.
Ryssdal: OK, so we take humans out of the equation — as is increasingly happening, when you have self-pay kiosks in an airport or a convenience store or in regular retail establishments — sometimes, you never have to interact with the human and yet you are prompted to tip at checkout. What happens inside the consumer’s mind, do you suppose?
Ochs: Well, I suspect that we’re all a lot alike, because most Americans tip, and we tip a lot. Adherence to tipping norms in the United States is quite high, and it’s highest when we have face-to-face interactions. So when we’re being asked to tip and we haven’t interacted face-to-face, we’re like, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. Who’s going to know if I’m a jerk?” We interviewed more than 450 people from across the U.S. in various sectors where people might receive non-standard compensation, and the people who receive tips tell us that most of the time people are tipping because they don’t want to seem like a jerk. So if you’re tipping in an automated process, who knows if you’re a jerk or not?
Ryssdal: Well, so that’s kind of where I land, right? I tip because No. 1, I’ve been conditioned to. No. 2, there are human beings somewhere in the chain of me grabbing that sandwich, even if I don’t see them. And also, I don’t want to be the jerk. Social pressure is real. But what, in the aggregate, does it say about us as a society that now it’s expected that we tip in almost all situations?
Ochs: I think it says a lot about the state of inequality. Some people believe that the tipping ritual is a practice that serves a redistributing function. What we find is that people tend to tip people who are more like them. And so that means in those jobs where people might be expected to receive tips, if they do not meet the cultural standard of acceptability or likability, then they are going to be tipped less. And what we also know is that those more vulnerable positions also tend to be occupied by folks who are less valued in society.
Ryssdal: How much does it matter that when I’m at my local Starbucks, I’m more likely to put a spare a couple of bucks into that tip jar on the counter because it’s going to go to the people right in front of me? Does it matter that with nameless, faceless transactions, we don’t actually know where the money goes?
Ochs: It does kind of matter. So if we think about this, in terms of tipping robots, I think about the last time I went to one of my favorite dim sum places. We interacted with a server to submit our order, and then some of the dishes came on a robot and I was like, “Am I supposed to touch them? Am I supposed to grab this off the thing?” So we interacted with several different people in the process of being served, but I had no idea who was getting the tip. So I asked a person I knew to be an employee and not a manager and I said, “Do you receive all of this tip? How much of this tip do you get you personally? And do then you tip out the bussers? Or do you bus yourself? Do you all make the same amount of money?” As far as I can tell, that’s the best way I can figure to ensure that tips are going to the folks who deserve it and who are working the hardest for it.
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