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Tipping point: It’s time for the US to catch up with Europe

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In the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino’s debut film, “Reservoir Dogs,” a group of hardened criminals are sitting together at a café, discussing an upcoming heist. When the check arrives, everyone puts in money for the tip—all except for one, a “Mr. Pink” (played by Steve Buscemi), who refuses to do so out of principle.

“Let me get this straight, you don’t ever tip?” asks one of his incredulous companions.

“I don’t tip because society says I have to,” Mr. Pink explains. “I mean, I’ll tip if someone deserves a tip. If they really put forth the effort, I’ll give them something extra. But this tipping automatically—it’s for the birds. As far as I’m concerned, they’re just doing their job.”

Most people—even Mr. Pink’s bank-robbing cohorts—don’t think very highly of lousy tippers. Though optional, it’s considered extremely rude not to tip your server after a meal. After all, as people are quick to point out, waiters and waitresses aren’t paid very much; many workers rely on tips just to make a living.

But, why do we tip at all? As Mr. Pink points out, doing something simply because it is expected by society doesn’t make it right. He goes on to point out various inanities with our tipping culture: Why tip employees in cafés, but not McDonald’s? And why is a customer’s generosity subject to government taxes?

To be clear, we’re not trying to suggest you stiff your waiter next time you go to Hump’s for breakfast. As an Ed Board, we unanimously agreed that in this country, leaving a tip is simply the right thing to do—regardless of the quality of service.

But, that didn’t stop us from asking some questions the institutional role that gratuity plays in our society. After all, in many European countries, tips are appreciated, but far from the norm. If service charge isn’t included, 10 percent is considered generous. Some occupations, like taxi-drivers and bartenders, don’t expect tips at all.

In America, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. But in many states, employers are only required to pay tipped workers a base rate of $2.13 per hour (though they must cover the difference if tips don’t add up to at least minimum wage). The “subminimum wage,” as it is called, leads to pitifully small payday checks, most of which will be deducted after taxes. What this means essentially is that servers really do live on their tips.

As anyone who’s ever worked in the food industry knows, a tipped income can fluctuate greatly. Nominally, tipping is supposed to reward good service. But in practice, the amount given is influenced by a number of factors outside of servers’ control. Crowds, the price of meals, individual customers’ generosity or stinginess and even the weather all play a role in determining someone’s final take-home pay. This might be acceptable for teenagers working their first job for some spending money. But for the 4.3 million workers in the U.S. who rely on tips for a living, a variable income can be troubling.

So why do we continue this strange practice? There’s no reason to believe that tipping improves the quality of service for the customer. In fact, studies have shown that most diners tend to habitually give a certain, predetermined percentage, regardless of service—meaning it’s in the server’s best interest to flip tables as quickly as possible, rather than grant their customers special attention.

Tipping is bad for employees, but now customers are getting stiffed as well. Maybe it’s time we skip the tip.

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Tipping point: It’s time for the US to catch up with Europe