Tipping practices have changed so much since the beginning of the pandemic

Charlie Warzel of The Atlantic‘s “Galaxy Brain” column has some interesting takes on how our notions of tipping have changed because of the pandemic, whether they might change back or stay forever changed, and why so many of us find this new world of tipping to be annoying:

The new tipping culture is confusing at best. I’ve found that some employees feel as uncomfortable about the point-of-sale moment as many consumers do. One barista in Colorado told me that he’d watched a customer contort his fingers on the tablet to make it look like he was tipping 20 percent when he was really selecting “No tip”; far from being offended, the barista said he now deploys the tactic when checking out elsewhere. Other service workers I spoke with suggested that the tablets aren’t the real problem here: If you can afford a $7 latte, they argued, why are you bristling at a $1 tip that would help your server?

And a long-running theory that technology has made people into better tippers may also be more complicated than it appears. A bartender at a Delta SkyClub in Seattle told me that incorporating a personal Venmo QR code into his work has drastically improved his tips. A Park and Ride–shuttle driver told me that digital tipping has hurt him, because people now tend not to carry cash. Square sent me data showing that tips received by both full-service and quick-serve restaurants exploded from 2020 to 2021; growth continued in 2022, but more modestly—full-service was up by more than 25 percent in the third quarter of 2022, and quick-service restaurants were up nearly 17 percent. Despite complaints, people are still tipping well and often.

It’s clear, in any case, that tech has upended tipping, creating a pervasive sense of cultural confusion about parts of the practice. And it’s been exacerbated by societal upheaval from the pandemic, mounting cultural and political frustrations, and broken business models. Employees and consumers are caught in the middle of these larger forces, and the result is a feeling of uncertainty at the moment of transaction.

It’s not that modern tipping is “out of control,” as CNN recently put it—a framework that seems to communicate a lack of compassion for service workers, whose minimum wage is staggeringly low in many states. There have always been vindictive customers, bad tippers, and class conflict, and stories about tablet-induced guilt trips have been popping up for a decade now. The new tipping weirdness is about something bigger. Service employees have been made to work through a pandemic, often without adequate protections. On top of that, they’ve had to deal with patrons behaving much more aggressively since mid-2020. Customer-facing employees are burned out, and consumers are more erratic, which means ample opportunities for resentment. More frequent prompts to tip can dredge up complex feelings of guilt and force us to confront difficult conversations: Why do some service industries have standardized tipping cultures, while others don’t? Why did Black service employees receive less money in tips during the pandemic than other employees?

I found the most interesting information in Warzel’s article to be that some businesses’ online payment software doesn’t differentiate between sales items that we think of as being tippable (food, drinks) and things that same business might sell that ought not be included in the tip (mugs, t-shirts, etc.). So when you get a suggested tip at these businesses on your receipt or payment screen, it’s up to you to figure out what you want to tip on (and what you don’t want to include). That makes sense, but I hadn’t really thought about how this would be annoying for customers who go into a store to buy a mixture of items that require employee preparation and those you just pull off a shelf/rack.

But don’t get mad. It’s just the way the software was coded. Just tip what you want and don’t make a scene or take it out on the service workers.

As for how much tipping has gone up since the beginning of the pandemic, that’s presents thorny issues.

I don’t make a lot of money. I am above the per capita income but below the median income for the city in which I live. Yet my philisophy is, if I can’t afford to tip at least 15% (and probably 20%) I won’t order delivery/take out.

The same goes for when I go pick up my groceries after ordering online at the supermarket. It’s 20% or nothing for that. And if tipping that much stretches my budget for that month, I go in and pick out my groceries myself.

But that’s just me.

If I were a single mother of two kids who wanted to do take out/delivery, I’m not sure those single mothers (or fathers) should be prevented from ordering take out/delivery because they can’t afford the substantial amount a 20% tip would add to their food order for three people.

Leave a Reply