What do employees at frozen yogurt chains, concession stands, bakeries, bars, deli counters and restaurants have in common? They're all handing you a prompt-filled iPad — "It's just going to ask you a couple of quick questions!" — in hopes you tip your probably underpaid service worker at least 10%, 15% or 20%.
For decades, tipping has proven a well-respected cornerstone of the American economy, reserved in large part for cab drivers, restaurant waiters, hotel staffers and the types of workers who tend to make less than minimum wage on the assumption happy customers will gladly fork over a few extra bucks. But ever since the pandemic, during which consumers placed an increased emphasis on supporting essential service workers and establishments, so-called tip creep has begun to invade even the most mundane transactions. Places that normally wouldn't, like self-checkouts, are now asking for an added dollar or two, usually behind a nondescript digital screen that ultimately shames more than it encourages. Once intended to thank a waiter for impeccable service or a driver for a smooth ride, is tipping growing further from an interpersonal show of gratitude and closer to a compulsory guilt trip?
To 26-year-old Garrett Bemiller, the mere option of tipping at an airport self-checkout was enough to drive him nuts. "Just the prompt in general is a bit of emotional blackmail," he told The Wall Street Journal. And he might be right in that it's all a bit of a game. According to tipping researchers and labor experts, such now-prolific tip suggestion screens are a way for employers to pass the burden of higher wages onto consumers rather than doing anything about it themselves. "Who wouldn't want to get extra money at very little cost if you could?" added Cornell University professor William Michael Lynn, who studies tip culture. "Suddenly, these screens are at every establishment we encounter. They're popping up online, as well for online orders. And I fear that there is no end," etiquette expert Thomas Farley, who described the phenomenon as an invasion, told The Associated Press. "I think it's a net negative to society," he said separately.
If left unchecked, what's known as tip fatigue, a side effect of tip creep, might prompt customers to actually start leaving less gratuity or maybe even none at all, Michael Von Massow wrote for The Conversation. Nudging patrons to tap a box on a payment terminal makes "tipping requests explicit, meaning customers are pressured into tipping, suggesting an expectation to tip, rather than a choice. This has the potential to induce feelings of guilt in customers."
For The Atlantic's Charlie Warzel, tipping in 2023 is weird not because there's too much of it but because consumers are now feeling "queasy about where their money goes and who benefits." Indeed, the awkwardness of that screen-tilting, eye-averting moment is less about "our desire to compensate for service" and more about the "cultural, socioeconomic and political" implications of the practice. "Often underpaid" and "exhausted" service workers just worked through a "global health crisis," and maybe we feel guilty not leaving an extra $1 because we were lucky enough to clock in every day from home.
Regardless, heavy tips can't sustainably make up for "the fact that the United States lacks a meaningful social safety net," Soleil Ho wrote for The San Francisco Chronicle. "With no guarantees for health care, shelter or food, low-wage workers are instead forced to rely on a strained and piecemeal system of gifts that are dependent on how much they please the rest of us."
Good for business?
Not only should tipping stick around, but it should continue in conjunction with a living wage for service workers, Saru Jayaraman, president of the advocacy organization One Fair Wage, told CNN. "We've got to tip, but it's got to be combined with telling employers that tips have to be on top, not instead of, a full minimum wage," she said. Not to mention that to some, like an anonymous Starbucks barista who chatted with CNN, a $1 to $3 tip feels like a small added burden for anyone already spending $7 on a latte. "If someone can afford Starbucks every day, they can afford to tip on at least a few of those trips," the worker said. (Starbucks introduced a digital tipping prompt at its cafes in 2022.)
And for businesses that use popular point-of-sale systems Clover, Square or Toast, the digital tipping feature is generally great for your bottom line. Not only can the tips accrued essentially pay for the software, but they might also incentivize employees to perform better and do a good job. "You'd be a foolish business owner not to install it based on what the numbers display," Farley told CNBC. Perhaps the best advice for consumers to follow is that from Lizzie Post and Daniel Post Senning, who shared their recommendations in their book, "Emily Post's Etiquette": Always tip on cab rides, food and beverages (alcoholic included), but feel free to use your own discretion with takeout orders and at cafes.