In the United States, the sacrosanct tip called into question

“Whatever you do, you feel guilty.” In downtown Washington, Matt Schottland, 41, salad and fruit juice in hand, answers a question that has become almost existential for Americans: should I tip?

In the United States, where the “tip” is king, this is not a matter of debate in restaurants. Tipping, usually 15 to 20% of the total, is a must as it often makes up the bulk of the waiter’s salary. But for a sandwich to go? A bouquet of flowers? Shopping at a grocery store?

For Matt Schottland, with the exception of restaurants, generally, it’s not. Unless the employees are “really nice”, or he feels “particularly generous”.

Except that no solution is perfect. If he tips, he may feel “a bit guilty or annoyed” for spending more money. And, if he doesn’t leave any, he feels “guilty” too, but vis-à-vis the employees.

“It’s not a great system,” he sighs.

The dilemma is relatively new. Tipping is spreading more and more, making the bill heavier in businesses where it was never offered before.

In response, experts are sounding the alarm on the risk of “tip fatigue”: Americans, too much in demand, would no longer know where to tip, or how much. A phenomenon which, by the way, opens the debate on this increasingly criticized remuneration system.

– “Guilt” –

According to Dipayan Biswas, professor of marketing at the University of South Florida, this expansion is largely due to “digital kiosks”, electronic checkouts that have become ubiquitous in recent years.

On these screens through which customers pay their bill, “companies can put a lot of options, including tips,” he explains.

In order not to pay any, the customer must therefore click on the “no tip” option. “It makes people uncomfortable, they don’t want to do that,” says Mr. Biswas, who considers it a “guilt” technique.

The different tip amounts displayed on a credit card reader in a Washington DC store on March 17, 2023 (AFP – Stefani Reynolds)

The strategy works in any case on Hannah Koban, 30, who admits “spending a lot more on tips than before”.

Being offered a gratuity for the waiter “puts a little more pressure,” says this lawyer with a long black coat and blond hair.

And digital kiosks sometimes suggest amounts of up to 30% of the total, well beyond the usual rate.

Result, “to understand when I should leave a tip, and what is the appropriate amount (…), I search all the time on Google”, laughs Hannah Koban.

The young woman takes things with a smile, but says she has “friends who are quite upset”.

Professor Dipayan Biswas fears this will distract Americans from the “tip” and penalize the servers that need it the most. “If you tip everywhere, you might leave less in restaurants.”

– “Revolution” –

A demonstration against low wages in the restaurant industry in Washington, in May 2021 (AFP - MANDEL NGAN)
A demonstration against low wages in the restaurant industry in Washington, in May 2021 (AFP – MANDEL NGAN)

Saru Jayaraman, president of the One Fair Wage association which defends a “fair” salary for waiters, considers that to speak of “tip fatigue” is “to miss the point”.

“If we’re tired of tipping all the time, let’s join the movement against low wages,” she encourages.

The pandemic, by reducing outings, had highlighted the fragility of the waiters’ remuneration system, which their bosses pay less than the legal minimum wage.

If, since then, the Americans have found their way to the restaurant, this sector known for its trying working conditions is struggling to recruit.

The industry is experiencing “a revolution” because its employees are “resigning en masse”, judge Saru Jayaraman.

However, she assures us that things are changing. The capital Washington joined in November the states imposing a minimum wage, even for employees paid with tips.

Until this is the case everywhere, says Saru Jayaraman, more and more sectors will want to take advantage of access to “the free labor that restaurants enjoy”.

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