The Guilt-Propelled Slavery of America’s Tipping Culture
Gratuities—generally 15-20 percent in the U.S.—perpetuate a slave-master binary that is fueled by a sense of karma, writer and musician Ian Svenonius argues. Those who tip “well” often do so out of camaraderie, claiming they too were once victims of the service industry and understand the terrible conditions and poor wages commonly associated with the field. Or else it is done to assuage the culpability inspired by purchasing a luxury, he explains in Jacobin. Whatever the reasons for tipping someone, doing so allows this form of indentured servitude to prosper in the United States by justifying the service industry’s mistreatment of workers while deluding and encouraging them with the overhanging carrot of the tip jar. Svenonius describes how the degrading system functions:
Tipping is the onus of the purchaser who pays the wage of the worker on top of the cost of whatever service provided, which goes to the business itself.
If one ever tries to discuss tipping in America, one is immediately met with a dismissive and lofty: “Well, I tip really well because I was/am part of the service industry.” Like veterans of the armed forces, the “service people” are bound together in a cult whose members have experienced the true nature of work servitude and the demeaning, harrowing experience it represents. The fellow warrior conspicuously tips well in a great display of homage and respect. Service implies a subservience but also a noble sacrifice. The service industry workers prepare our sandwiches nobly, submitting to our personalized mayonnaise requests. Almost all Americans have worked in the service industry at some point and many will only ever work in it.
Tipping for these service-industry comrades is outside of money. It is an alm or genuflection; a gesture of humility to the tippee designed to recognize and rehabilitate the degrading nature of their work, and also to connect with them spiritually. The camaraderie and smile dispensed by the waitstaff on receiving a generous tip after a suspenseful meal service brings the light of spiritual nourishment to the tipper, who can rest well that night….
Just as oblations to the poor will puff up one’s sense of self, “tipping well”?— 20 percent or more?— is a measure of one’s personal decency. People often boast of their tipping. The least attractive thing one could do in the US is tip stingily. That is for old, religious people or clueless foreigners. Conversely, if one leaves a tip at a coffee bar in parts of Europe, the barista looks insulted and confused, as if you were treating him or her as a beggar; are you some kind of playboy show-off who throws his money around?
…Tipping therefore has many purposes besides being an exploitive business model. It either shows affinity for comrades in the service industry, or is a duty done reluctantly by the bourgeoisie to stave off insurrection. It absolves sins and wrongdoing, so it’s religious. It is a guilt fee paid by the ill-conscienced for the immoral act of indulging in luxury. It is an act of dominance as it displays power through capital, and also an act of submission?— a paid tribute offered to the service person. All of this is erotic and exciting, which accounts for the huge popularity of tipping.
More so, employers realize that hiring people who will work for tips means they don’t have to offer them job security, benefits or a living wage, Svenonius notes. He calls them company guests who are forced to behave “appropriately for monetary reward, courtesy of the customer” and likens the business model to 1920s steelworkers “paying each other’s wages while their mill bosses pleaded poverty.” How ridiculous would that be? And yet, here we are.
—Posted by Natasha HakimiWait, before you go…
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