The guilt spiral of tipping in 2023
“It’s just going to ask you a couple questions,” they say, turning the tablet.
Have tips gotten out of hand? Let's explore.
Have tips gotten out of hand? Let's explore. [ ELISE AMENDOLA | AP ]
Published May 5|Updated May 5

Much goes unsaid between customers and workers, an icy chasm between “We have Pepsi products, is that OK?” and “Get home safe!” Therein writhes a silent disco of pain, I am telling you.

You see, America decided to let people pay each other on a system of vibes and vibes alone. We really said, “Strangers shall make wage assessments over a $14 panini, deciding which party will afford electricity that week. Both parties will be wildly self-conscious and full of guilt. They will Charlie Brown-stare each other to death while smiling through gritted teeth until everyone ends up broke and miserable. Cosigned, John Hancock and the rest.”

Of course, we are talking about tipping. The service-based gratuity is a storied tradition that has become more unbridled than ever. Americans are no longer expected to just tip on dinners (no, Pepsi is not OK), haircuts and car rides. The popularity of fingerprinty iPads at checkout counters, coupled with the financial trauma of the pandemic, has turned life into a Drake video in which we’re all giving each other nickels while corporate overlords spread baby oil on their bellies. We not only tip servers, whose baseline pay is the last dime Grandpa Joe gave Charlie Bucket. We tip everyone, and a lot, unless we don’t, but maybe we should, unless we shouldn’t, please help?

New York Magazine decided to swing big and set new rules for tipping: While it was once socially acceptable to tip 15 to 20%, 20% is the new minimum for dining. The magazine advised 20% at coffee shops, too, and $5 or 20% minimum on food delivery. And yes, we’re supposed to leave $1 on a bottle of water when the cashier swivels around that cursed iPad and says, “Just a couple questions.” Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times recently outlined tipping’s racist and classist roots, history always a rat in the floorboards.

I did not come here today to talk about solutions, however, because no one likes those, either. I came here for psychological commiseration. If you are like me, by which I mean, “raised going to confession,” let’s talk. Tipping introduces a frequent opportunity for a Cirque du Moo-lah acrobatic show of guilt, indignation, empathy and ultimately, exhaustion.

For example, can this barista see where my finger is trailing? Does she know the $1 option is on the left? Does she know I’m a good person? Why do I care if she likes me? I want her to like me.

Do I tip on this jar of artisanal artichokes? I took it off the shelf myself, so no one really did anything. There are 16 people behind me in line, and they can all sense I’m deciding whether to tip and judging me for it in six different ways. If I wedge in a supportive comment about collective bargaining, can I skip the tip? Oh my God, did I just wink?

I am in self-checkout. Am I tipping a robot? Does the robot like me?

Did UberEats increase one-click tipping to 16% and 21%? Are they really going to make me do math at a time like this, a time when I am sans tacos?

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What is 20% of eleventy billion dollars? That will cover the tip on these beers someone pulled out of a pool of gray ice water at Raymond James Stadium. He seems nice. It’s not his fault.

Yes, my soup was full of hair and staples, but it’s not like the server put the hair and staples in the soup, right? I can’t punish everyone. Plus, the server splits tip with the back of house and the host, a fact I know from my time working as a host. Those little envelopes filled with $20 of tip share pay for gas to get back to the restaurant to get more little $20 envelopes to pay for more gas to get back to the restaurant. Hmm, maybe by not tipping, I am liberating the host from this toxic cycle! Maybe that is the moral choice? No. I’ll tip $400, because that is the social contract. I’ll eat the hair and staples.

Literally everyone hates me.

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