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The tradition of tipping in America

Published Sep. 2, 2005

Tip-skimming has surfaced in Boston, and there can't be a tipper in America who, on hearing the news, doesn't exclaim, "The greedy bastards!" In a lawsuit filed March 7 in Suffolk Superior Court, five former servers from the venerable eatery Locke-Ober say the restaurant made them kick back the bulk of their tips to management. Then, when they made a fuss, they were fired. Suits are also being filed against three other restaurants by employees. The waiters allege that the restaurants are breaking state labor laws by grabbing their tips.

Skimming tips allows restaurant owners to pay managers less out of their own pockets because the tips make up the difference. And since waiters and kindred staff are paid subminimum wage, they thus get screwed twice. Greed isn't unique to Boston. This must be happening across the country. Soon we'll be asked to make it standard practice to tip a minimum of 30 percent: 15 percent for the workers, and 15 percent for the management.

Hovering somewhere between charity and a bribe, the tip is one of our most polymorphous social transactions. At its most crude, it can be a loutish expression of authority and disdain. At its purest, it can approach a statement of love.

Hanns Sachs, who grew up in Vienna at the same time as his "master and friend," Sigmund Freud, wrote a memoir of life in that city in the late 19th century. He devoted some testy pages to the growing complexities of trinkgeld (tips), complexities which he took to be evidence of the decadence of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Everybody had their hand out for prescribed portions of trinkgeld _ the coachman, the doorman, the hat check girl, the waiter, the wine waiter, the headwaiter, the maitre d'hotel:

"Every door which you had to pass was opened for you by someone who demanded a tip; you could not get into the house you lived in after 10 p.m., nor seat yourself in the car in which you wanted to ride without giving a tip. Karl Kraus, Vienna's witty satirist, said the first thing a Viennese would see on the day of Resurrection would be the outstretched hand of the man who opened the door of his coffin."

Visitors to the young republic found to their surprise that coachmen and waiters refused their tips. Similarly, an organization called the Anti-tipping Society of America, founded in 1905, attracted some hundred thousand members, most of them traveling salesmen. But antitipping laws were declared unconstitutional in the same year that Congress passed the Volstead Act, and Americans entered the '20s buying bootleg liquor and tipping big.

Tipping is even bigger money now, with billions of dollars per annum being left by plates, scrawled on credit cards, squirmed through taxi partitions and slapped into outstretched palms. This is not so much an art as an item in the federal budget serious enough to provoke government provisions designed to ensure that the U.S. Treasury gets its tip, too.

That's the trouble. Tipping is a paradox: formal yet informal, public yet private, commercial yet intimate, voluntary yet in reality so close to compulsory that most people, across the years have little difficulty in remembering the times they felt compelled to leave no tip at all. If tipping becomes an entirely mechanical act, beneath government supervision, it loses its vitality. .

It would be better, some argue, to give up tipping altogether, as they tried in the old days in Eastern Europe and China. Tipping is, after all, about the relationship between the served and servant, and should play no part in a free society of equals. It can be traced to the primitive gift exchange, the amiable and generous distribution of surplus goods and cash, which, in its most abandoned expression, takes the form of the potlatch, where the surplus was either disposed of by common consumption or heaved over the side of a cliff.

Me? I'm a 20 percent guy, as a rule, unless the service has been lousy. Women tend to be tighter in tips. Smokers and drinkers tip better. Working people tip better than the rich folk, taxi drivers tell me.

In a perfectly equal society, everyone would exchange equivalent gifts _ portions of the surplus. Everyone would tip and everyone be tipped in universal rhythms of generosity and gratitude. But, of course, modern society is not equal, and the surplus wealth is unequally controlled and allocated, so the distribution of surplus wealth must always be an expression of power and of domination.

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch.

Creators Syndicate, Inc.