May 19, 2019

The Cultural Relativity of Tipping

“Post-prandial bliss is especially sweet when enjoyed in the shade of a sunlit restaurant terrace in Vernazza, a picturesque village in Liguria, on Italy’s northwestern coast. But all good things must come to an end and, to signal that lunch was over, I had to perform one final parting ritual: leaving a tip.

Or perhaps not. I was several days into my holiday and I realised that, contrary to my habit back home, I had not been tipping, since I understood that it was not the Italian way. But then I started to worry that my assumptions were out of date. So I asked the waiter straight up about the local custom. ‘People might add a Euro or two, but nothing more,’ he said. At first I was relieved, but then I thought, wouldn’t our waiter be used to travellers tipping according to their native habits? So I asked what he’d think if an American left just the odd Euro. ‘Tirchio’ was his reply: tight. When in Rome, you might do as the Romans, but don’t always expect to be thanked for it.

Tipping is confusing, and paradoxical. We tip some people who provide services but not others who work just as hard for just as little pay. It is insulting to leave any tip in Tokyo but offensive not to leave a large one in New York. It is assumed that the purpose of tipping is to encourage good service but we leave one only after the service has been given, when it is too late to change it, often to people who will never serve us again. Tipping challenges the sweeping generalisations of economists and anthropologists alike. To understand how and why we tip is to begin to understand just how complicated and fascinating we human beings are.”

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