We Didn’t Get the Memo - Tipping in America

Le Voir N. Lewis

Tipping has been a discretionary practice in America when receiving service from an employee of the hospitality industry since after the American Civil War. Unfortunately, there are some who are miseducated in the practice because everyone has not received the memo on tipping.

Person Holding Credit CardAndrea Piacquadio/Pexels

Tipping: a topic that many people avoid to discuss in a spontaneous forum at all costs but who somehow manage to put their two cents in (no pun intended) at the dinner table when it’s time to divvy up the bill. A vast majority of the population have their views on tipping in America, some being pragmatic, while a certain segment of the country may feel that tipping is a luxury for those who are on the receiving end, and possibly should not reap the full benefits of such a wage.

It is totally understandable that some will instantly shy away from the subject, find it offensive, and will turn a deaf ear to the discussion. Then there are the ones who will read with an open mind, even take notes for their next outing to a restaurant, hotel, or venue where the staff accepts tips. I want to ensure that everyone knows that the series is in no way an opinion, a form of controversy, or any way an attempt at putting anyone on blast for the public to humiliate. This is not that type of forum or discussion. The purpose is to educate and open the minds of many people who may not have known the difference.

How America accepted tipping when tipping wasn’t meant for the middle or lower class.

It is very important to understand how tipping became a part of the culture of America before discussing the miseducation of the practice. Unclear of how tipping began in general, scholars have noted the act of tipping originated in the Middle Ages as a form of the caste system. In the master-serf caste system, tipping was a way of rewarding the serf for stellar service. Before and after the American Civil War, affluent travelers between 1850 and 1860 would venture off to European cultures, picking up the tradition that was seen abroad, then bringing the tradition back in a semblance of putting on airs or seem aristocratic.

After the effects of the Civil War, those who were formerly enslaved were faced with very few options for jobs. If one did not want to work as a sharecropper, the other option was as a housekeeper, maid, servant, railroad porter, or a barber: jobs where tipping was heavily encouraged. It was noted that many employers did not want to pay former slaves a salary, despite the Constitution being amended to end slavery as an institution altogether. Discussions to enforce employers paying an hourly wage in addition to tips wouldn’t occur until the amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1966, pioneering the hourly crusade toward the current minimum wage of $2.13 for tipped employees, like restaurant workers. Until then, it was the understanding that former slaves would not be paid a wage from their employer; therefore, the customer knew to provide a small tip instead; thus, being the standard post Civil War until the 1960s.

Despite the drive to not conform to European standards and traditions, unfortunately a caste system was created ‘overnight’ in America. As fast as the custom of tipping was becoming widespread, in 1915, the practice was abolished by six states which was also becoming popular. In 1918, the state of Georgia considered the act of tipping as a commercial bribe. Saru Jayaraman wrote Forked, a book about restaurant worker pay, and, in 2018, was co-founder and president of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and the director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley.

“When these states banned tipping, it was because they were trying to discourage whites from tipping instead of actually paying former slaves,” Jayaraman told the Washington Post. Of six states that made tipping illegal, five were in the South, where the idea was that only Black workers were making tips because “you only tip inferiors,” Jayaraman explained.

“These industries demanded the right to basically continue slavery with a $0 wage and tip,” Jayaraman says.

By 1926, all six states had bans that were overturned or overruled because the ban was found to be unconstitutional. Despite the repeal of these bans, there were companies who profited from the labor of former slaves, but did very little to back their employees when asked for a decent wage in addition to tips, proving how the institution of a caste system slowly developed into the tipping practice seen today. The next discussion will focus on the break in communication in middle and lower class families, and the principles of tipping in America, shedding light on why a lot of the general population hasn’t received the memo about tipping practices.

A Money and a Letterby RODNAE Productions/Pexels

How the miseducation of the tipping system in middle or lower class families has been one reason for the break in communication when being (or not being) knowledgeable about tipping standards.

Since it has been established that tipping was a practice meant only for non-People of Color post-American Civil War, grasping the concept there has been a break in communication regarding knowing how to tip will be a discussion. According to a field study, Trends in US home food preparation and consumption: analysis of national nutrition surveys and time use studies from 1965–1966 to 2007–2008, it was concluded in 1965, between 88 and 95 percent of meals were prepared at home, and in 2007 between 65 and 72 percent of households prepared homecooked meals. Of those households, middle and low income families are cooking a lot more than upper class families, according to the Nutritional Journal field study, Who’s cooking? Trends in US home food preparation by gender, education, and race/ethnicity from 2003 to 2016, that breaks down cooking versus socioeconomic status. The data proves that upper class families are dining out frequently, whereas middle and low income households, not so much.

More affluent households pass the knowledge and education of tipping standards to their children and so on, because of the frequent exposure to dining out. Lower income families tend to not hold the discussion about tipping because of the infrequent outings to restaurants, cafes, or any place where tipping a server or bartender is the custom. One typically sees these households on a seasonal basis, i.e., holidays, summer time, special occasions.

How the stigma has effected restaurant employees (non-salaried) and the fallout.

Discriminatory practices have increased in certain restaurants due to staff unofficially refusing to serve certain clientele based on racial profiling. The domino effect of institutionalized tipping has emboldened certain employees to refuse serving Black people, often times becoming vocal in front of Black coworkers all because of the presumption that Black people don't tip. Patrons have called out restaurants in the age of #CancelCulture, prompting them to ensure that discrimination will not be tolerated. Restaurants have refused to allow their staff to educate patrons on tipping standards, which leads to disciplinary actions and possible termination of employment. Some restaurants have adopted the policy of printing a tip chart on the bottom of each receipt based on the subtotal of the bill, proving to be subtle and harmless in their approach. Another method, which seems to have mixed reviews, is placing an automatic gratuity on the check. The process guarantees the server will receive a tip once they have received payment, but there are a lack of laws that mandate the practice.

Unfortunately, etiquette is a practice that needs to be communicated in order to be effective. Tipping etiquette, practice, and standards have been lost in translation for years, only to have employees in the hospitality industry to be directly effected. More restaurants and restaurant associations should ban together to increase tipping education and awareness so everyone receives the memo on tipping standards.

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Writer of supernatural fiction, pop culture, food and beverage topics, spirituality | former restaurant manager & bartender | current Resource Planner in NOLA

New Orleans, LA

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