The inconsistency of tipping

Dwight Schrute: Office Jerk

“Why tip someone for a job I’m capable of doing myself? I can deliver food. I can drive a taxi. I can, and do, cut my own hair. I did however tip my urologist, because I am unable to pulverize my own kidney stones.”

–   Dwight Schrute, from The Office

For those who haven’t seen the US version of the television show The Office, Dwight Schrute is the office joke. The one who craves authority over others but has no respect from co-workers. The one who acts like a know-it-all but is really quite naive.

In short, Dwight is hilarious but never in ways he intends.

But Dwight’s comments, above, do make an interesting point. Dwight argues against tipping anyone who provides him with anything he can do himself. He only tips someone who he feels he needs, like his urologist. Furthermore, he only considers himself to need someone if he is unable to do himself what they are doing for him.

As absurd as this attitude appears it is much more consistent than our own.

We might tip at restaurants, but not fast-food outlets. We might tip at a cocktail bar, but not at the local RSL club. We would never tip a dentist or a sales assistant, but we might tip a hairdresser or taxi driver.

So even though we tell ourselves ‘we tip for good service’, this only applies in certain contexts. It certainly doesn’t apply in other contexts, regardless of how good the service is (have you ever tipped a shoe salesperson?). There is no logic or consistency in this. What are we doing?

Dwight, the office joke, has us in an intellectual corner. At least he knows why he tips. It might be a reason based in selfishness, but is it any less polite? We might call him rude for not tipping a waiter who delivered great service, but he could point out that there are plenty of people who we do not tip that deliver equivalent services. Where’s the politeness in selective or discriminatory generosity?

Does this inconsistency effectively make us fools by our own standards? Does the fact that we act in such a haphazard way make us Dwight’s joke, funny in ways we never intended?

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10 Responses to The inconsistency of tipping

  1. Kirsty says:

    Surely whether we tip or not comes down partly to expectations. When we choose fast food or to have a cocktail at the RSL we aren’t going there because of the quality of the service or food/drink. Rather, it’s because it’s cheap. Wouldn’t it then defeat the purpose to tip?

    And when I go to the dentist I expect (and demand) high quality service. So it would be almost impossible for a dentist to exceed my expectations to the point that I want to provide a tip.

    • tippingoz says:

      Fair enough, good point. But have you ever tipped a sales assistant? They provide a service, some well above what can be expected of them.

      • Kirsty says:

        Not that I can recall but then I’m also struggling to recall service from a sales assistant worthy of it. Perhaps more importantly I also rarely pay in cash and there aren’t as many opportunities to tip when paying by eftpos or credit card.

  2. Tracey says:

    Drats! I must be doing something wrong. I never get ‘service’ from sales assistants.

    The sales sector does seem to recognise the risk for ‘lack of motivation’ on the part of casual staff and so I think keeping sales figures is not uncommon. Sales people are expected to provide service/ be nice/ be sleazy in order to sell more things. This of course does not quite work in a supermarket, but I think they have scan rate data or something similar.

    • tippingoz says:

      You’re right, there probably are different management strategies at play in the different scenarios. That probably would affect things.

      So are you saying it is the fear of being fired, after being caught not selling enough, rather than the prospect of earning more money through tips that motivates people in retail?

      In that case, do customers not tip sales assistants because they know this and therefore do not feel the need to tip?

      • Trace says:

        I do not think those things actually motivate people in a deep way, although I think people are not stupid and work out how to work within any system. I guess I was trying to point out that a system of tipping may not be arbitary, while at the same time drawing on such flimsy assuptions to suggest that we could argue that anything is rational if we try hard enough.

        I guess in Pretty Woman she does not buy anything from the shop where she was treated poorly? Although I am not sure how to go from there to answering your question about tipping.

  3. Kim says:

    Lots of questions in this blog tippingoz. I may as well work my way through them.

    Q) have you ever tipped a shoe salesperson?
    A) No.

    Q) What are we doing?
    A) I have no idea. Generally just making it up as I go along. I’ve noticed that this approach works well in the public sector.

    Q) It might be a reason based in selfishness, but is it any less polite?
    A) This fictional schmuck has chosen his reason for tipping or not tipping and good for him. I wouldn’t want to tip a urologist as those guys are always taking the piss…urgh. Need to work on my material.

    Q) Where’s the politeness in selective or discriminatory generosity?
    A) What does politeness have to do with discriminatory generosity? Occasionally we act polite, sometimes impolite. But we are never at a bar, a dentist, a urologist, a shoe store simultaneously so the barman can’t say “hey you gave the shoe guy a tip, where’s mine?” So the politeness can only ever be judged by us and really that sounds like hard work.

    Q)Does this inconsistency effectively make us fools by our own standards?
    A) I am a fool by my own and many other people’s standards.

    Q) Does the fact that we act in such a haphazard way make us Dwight’s joke, funny in ways we never intended?
    A) Being alive, behaving inconsistently and partaking in cultural a transaction such as tipping are all endless sources of amusement. The resulting awkward silences, weird glances, the faux pas, misunderstandings are all funny, intended or not.

    That was alot of questions. I’m sleepy.

  4. Kim says:

    I generally tip based on an individual transaction. If I liked the service I received and I want to show my financial token of appreciation to that person providing the service then I tip them.

    I would never think of tipping a dentist as
    1. They are generally loaded
    2. The service received is unpleasant

    I don’t want to pay an extra cent when I receive health services even though they may be extending my life. I want to know what the cost is for such services, which is generally exorbitant. I want to occasionally tip a waiter as I enjoyed my meal, drinks services and the inane banter. Although none of these things may extend my life. I realise the inconsistency but I have no interest in behaving consistently in relation to tipping.

    • Gus says:

      I think that there are many explanations for the inconsistency. Relative wages levels and some peoples need for income plays to our social conscience and our desire to help people. A desire to at least be seen as helping people is another related reason. Perhaps it’s fear of retribution from outsiders if we are seen as people who do not tip, or fear of receiving poor service/quality. You know, sneeze muffins or worse.

      All I can conclude at this stage is that Context Matters.

      Incidentally, I would tip my dentist if they made it a pleasant experience. (Assuming I went to the dentist at all, that is)

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