Thursday, December 09, 2004


(Apparently, ethical/religious minutiae are what I like to think about in my spare time. Also the ideal arrangement of my desktop icons, but nevermind about that.) Topic of the hour is tipping. Example: once or twice a month, usually those lonely Monday nights when Mrs. Prophet is in class until late, I get a falafel from the place down the street. They have a little tip cup in the front. Sometimes Mr. Owner is working the cashier, and sometimes this Friendly Guy who is about my age and lives in Astoria. I always want to put a dollar in, but somehow I find it mortifying to do so while on of them is looking. So I wait for them to look away, and then quick -- jam the dollar in. About half the time I don't get a chance, and they go untipped. Shame is the emotion that motivates me more than any other, so I tend to project it onto others as well. I'm pretty sure neither the owner nor Friendly Guy are embarrassed at all by my tipping, but my own embarrassment clearly comes from an intuition that there is something humiliating for either Mr. Owner or Friendly Guy to earn their living from my whimsy. If it were my world, I would abolish tipping. George Orwell, in Homage to Catalonia, describes the scene in Barcelona as he arrived in late December, 1936:
I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but I had joined the militia almost immediately, because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do. The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing... It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said 'Señor' or 'Don' or even 'Usted'; everyone called everyone else 'Comrade' and 'Thou,' and said 'Salud!' instead of 'Buenos días.' Tipping had been forbidden by law since the time of Primo de Rivera; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy.
This sounds great to me. Yes yes, totally impractical of course, oppression of communism, failure of socialist economies, etc., but I'll never get over the simple egalitarian instinct that this is how things ought to be. And so I hold on to the abolition of the tip as a small part of a better society. Potential Objections to abolition of the tip:
  1. Perhaps we already have a culture of equality in America, and so tipping is more of a friendly guesture between peers than a condescension. Certainly Mr. Owner and Friendly Guy look me in the eye, and don't call me 'Don'. With 250 years of rough social equality (give or take racism), we simply don't need the radical European measures.
  2. Perhaps abolishing tipping, or -- worse -- declining to tip when it is acceptable, ignores the simple fact that some service-oriented professions simply do better with tipping. Certainly non-tipping restaurants in Western Europe can have a, um, lackadaisical quality. And waitstaff are generally happy to take tips, socially demeaning or no.
  3. Or, most likely: my anguish at tipping simply reflects my weak-bellied liberal discomfort at the simple social fact that I'm a well-educated, privileged white man. And at the fact that social inequities exist, and will exist under any economic system we can bear. Tip or no tip, these facts will not change, so I should just get over my angst and give the guy a buck, whether he's humiliated or not.
Objection 1 has some merit; objection 2 might be correct but I'm willing to sacrifice some "quality" for a social good, if it is worthwhile; and objection 3 is undeniable. Yet I still cling to the idea that we'd be better of with tipping, in any setting. Dear readers three, do you tip (in non-restaurant situations, i.e. when it's not necessarily expected of you)? Would you prefer an anonymous tip, or no tip at all?


Blogger emi said...

dear little mithras,

this little tippping riff--I very much identify--but I think its implications are distrubingly grand. I am reminded of my profound and lifelong fear of saying things like "thank you" and how my family never had the habit of telling one another "I love you." I think shame is key here too--and I think it's a hyphenated shame, a shame that would need to be represented by a long compound Germanic word. The shame that such things need be said (that they could possibly be anything but obvious) the shame that the other person might want or expect them to be said, the sahme that it might possibly be one shade off from sincerity, the shame of putting the other in the position to respond to the gesture of thanks/ much...

2:04 PM  

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