Gratuitous Joy and the Tumult around Tipping

Fresno Bee, December 3, 2023

Americans are confused and conflicted about tipping. How much should you tip, and when? Is tipping an obligation or a gift? Is it a standard service charge, or a reward for excellent service?

Tipping lies somewhere in the murky middle, as a customary “gift” that is not obligatory. Even though tipping is not required, it can feel like an obligation. In many cases, you can’t pay the bill until you tip. This offends the Grinches among us, who dread the tipping screen. Some stingy Scrooges even dare to write a zero on the credit card receipt or refuse to finger that dreaded screen.

The most authentic gifts are spontaneous and unexpected. Gifts like this are “gratuitous,” which means freely given. That word is related to the word “gratuity,” which is a synonym for “tip.” A gratuity is not a service charge, since it is voluntary. Gratuitous also means excessive or even unwanted, as in the phrase “gratuitous violence.” A gratuity is supposed to be a beneficial gift. But there is a sense that it may be excessive.

Which leads to the question of how much to tip. What’s the right amount? Pundits have warned about “tip-flation,” as the entry level amount on some tipping screens often begins at 18% or 20%. The 15% tip of yesteryear now seems quaint and cheap.

Whatever the rate, isn’t it odd to base a tip on a percentage? If I order an expensive cocktail for $20 and a friend orders a beer for $5, the bartender does basically the same work in serving us. But at 20% my tip is $4 and his is only $1. The same service results in different tipping amounts. This makes no sense, which is why it is frustrating.

Human interaction works best when there are clear rules. We value steady and predictable behavior. And in our economy, we don’t haggle or give bribes. Instead, we expect transparent and fixed prices. But tipping doesn’t work like that. The rules for tipping are unspoken and unclear. Even the Scrooges will pay what they owe. But what exactly do we owe for the tip? We want to do the right thing with tipping, but we are not sure what that is.

It can help to know how other people tip. You might check out an interactive new website called “Tipping Point, USA,” from the Pew Research Center, that allows you to compare your tipping behavior with others. The Pew Center’s data suggest that most people only expect to tip 15%. According to that source, people tip at sit-down restaurants, when getting a haircut, and at bars. But people generally don’t tip at coffee shops or at restaurants where there are no servers.

This implies that tipping is a kind of service charge. But if it is a service charge, why don’t they just weave it into the price, rather than leaving it up to the consumer to figure out? Service workers would benefit if the service charge were predictable. And consumers would be happy to have the mystery removed.

And yet, we can also learn to embrace this mystery. Gift-giving is supposed to be joyful. Tipping could also be an opportunity for joy. Tipping is, after all, a chance to give a gift to a stranger. A change in perspective can help us see tipping in a more generous light. Instead of viewing the tip as a dreaded obligation, we can view the gratuity as a chance to be, well, gratuitous.

And now, since this is the Christmas season, let’s consider the possibility that gratuitous joy is, as they say, the reason for the season. The Christian story tells us that the birth of Jesus was a gratuitous gift. More generally, the spirit of the season is about the gladness of giving.

It is fun to surprise friends and family with unexpected gifts. It can be more thrilling to give to a stranger. Try it at the coffee shop next time. How would it feel to give a gratuity that exceeds what the tipping screen allows? If we view tipping as an opportunity to spread good cheer, dread can turn into delight, and our Grinchy hearts may learn to glow with gratuitous joy.

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Be Thoughtful About Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving provides an opportunity to reflect on gratitude.  I’ve written a number of columns over the years about Thanksgiving and the spirit of gratitude.  It is good to be grateful.  But gratitude requires honesty.  And giving thanks should be grounded in truth. 

It is possible, after all, for gratitude to be mistaken.  We can thank the wrong person, for example.  Or we can misunderstand what we are thankful for.  Gratitude misfires, for example, if I thank someone for a gift that they did not give me.  We’ve got to get the facts right, when we express gratitude.  We also need a correct interpretation of those facts.

Nor does it make sense to be thankful for “bad gifts.”  It is not appropriate to give an alcoholic booze for his Christmas.  Nor should a drunk really be thankful for such a present.  Gift-giving and thankfulness imply that the gift is beneficial and represents goodwill.

Moreover, saying thanks does not justify misdeeds.  If someone eats the pumpkin pie on my plate without my consent, saying “thanks” does not make the theft OK.

All of this is especially important at Thanksgiving, when our rituals are infused with misleading myths that conceal terrible misdeeds

The Thanksgiving myth celebrates religious freedom and hospitable relations between European settlers and Native Americans.  These are noble ideas.  Religious liberty ought to be celebrated.  And hospitality is important.  Unfortunately, both ideas are mythological when it comes to the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving. 

The Christian colonizers viewed the natives as heathens.  The colonizers did not respect indigenous religions.  Nor did the Puritan colonists tolerate Christian dissenters: Quakers were persecuted in New England, as were figures such as Roger Williams and Ann Hutchinson (see Smithsonian for details). When it comes to religious liberty today, it is the First Amendment we ought to thank—not the Pilgrims. 

The European colonists were not friendly to the natives.  Columbus himself began the process of enslaving the natives on American mines and plantations, while also exporting slaves to Europe. The African slave trade grew as the Native America slaves began to die out from European diseases. 

By the time the Pilgrims landed over 100 years after Columbus, European diseases had already decimated native populations.  The land of the Pilgrim’s pride had originally been cleared by natives who had recently died. 

The Pilgrims were aided in their settlement by Squanto, a native American who had been taken to Europe as a slave.  Squanto returned to his homeland only to find that his tribe was dead from disease.

There is even more to the story.  I recommend Loewen’s “Lies My Teacher Told Me” as a useful source that dispells the myths of the first Thanksgiving and discloses the horrible truths of European colonialism.

Now let’s ask what we should be thankful for today about this history.

Should we be thankful that Native peoples such as Squanto were enslaved—and thus had the linguistic skills that allowed him to help the Pilgrims? 

Should we be thankful for the plague that killed the Indians before the Pilgrims arrived?  In 1629, John Winthrop seemed to thank God for that “miraculous” plague that left the country “void of inhabitants.”  Is it appropriate to thank God for the diseases that depopulated the continent?

These questions remind us that not everyone views Thanksgiving as a time of celebration.  Native American activists have declared this a “day of mourning.”  A plaque commemorating this reads: “Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture.”

Some might conclude that this shows that gratitude is relative.  Not everyone will be grateful for the same thing. 

There is some truth here.  But relativism is a cop out.  Objective facts matter when it comes to gratitude.  The more important problem is that we can be mistaken in our gratitude and misled by our myths.  These mistakes can lead us to give thanks for the wrong things.

And so, as we enter into the holiday season, let’s enjoy giving gifts and giving thanks.  But let’s be careful about the gifts we give.  And let’s be thoughtful about what we are thankful for. 

The naughty and nice of gift giving

Fresno Bee

November 29, 2013

Imagine that your Aunt Clara gives you a pink bunny suit for Christmas, when you really wanted a Red Ryder air rifle. Chances are you’ll smile and say thank you. It’s the thought that counts. You can’t blame Aunt Clara for her bad taste or delusions. Her intentions were good.

But this may let Aunt Clara off too easily. Consequences matter in addition to intentions. We don’t usually think that it’s only the thought that counts. Performance matters in most social endeavors. Good gift giving requires substantial effort beyond merely having good intentions.

Gift giving sends a signal about the status of our relationships. There are a lot of uncertainties here. To begin with, you have to decide who merits a gift. Should you give a gift to your neighbors, co-workers and distant nephews?

Then you have to decide how much to spend. Should you spend as much on your nieces and nephews as you do on the collection for the office assistant or janitor at work? And what about reciprocation? If you gave someone a $10 gift last year and she reciprocated with a $50 gift, what should you give her this year?

Can you give everyone on your list the same gift — perhaps an iTunes gift card? Or do you have to find the perfect gift for each person? Maybe Aunt Clara had a big stack of bunny suits in her closet. Can we blame her for being efficient in her shopping?

Aunt Clara could just send cash. As my grandmother said, cash is always the right color but rarely the right size. But the gift of cash can seem more like a tip than a gift. You can give the mailman a few bucks. But that’s not a proper gift for your wife.

These problems were discussed long ago by the Roman philosopher Seneca. In his treatise on gift giving, Seneca explains that giving must be done for the sake of the recipient. It’s not merely the thought that counts — we also have to try to give an appropriate gift.

Seneca also suggests that genuine gift giving should be done for the sake of giving itself. That sounds like abstract moralizing. But an old Christmas song tells kids to be good for goodness’ sake. The idea is that it is naughty to be good for the sake of something other than goodness.

To give for the sake of giving we must cultivate a spirit of charity, kindness and care. But that generous spirit only creates the right disposition. It still doesn’t tell us what to give or how much. The spirit of pure generosity certainly sounds nice. But without some common sense it can be naughty.

An old proverb states that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Aunt Clara may be on that gilded path. She may think she is being generous for the sake of generosity. But unless she takes your needs and interests into account, giving you a gift for your sake and not merely for the sake of goodness, she’s being lazy and thoughtless.

A further problem is that good giving should not merely give you what you want — it should also give you what you need. If Aunt Clara is really concerned with you for your sake, she shouldn’t give you the air rifle, since after all, “you might put your eye out.” It’s wrong to give someone a gift knowing that the gift might injure him — even if he wants it.

That’s why it is wrong to give wine to a hard drinker — as Seneca notes. When you do something for the sake of someone else, you should carefully imagine the consequences. You’ve got to put yourself in the place of the other.

And that’s the point of gift giving. It encourages deep social interaction grounded in moral imagination. Giving ought to be focused on the unique needs and interests of the individual, done for her sake.

All of this makes shopping harder. But better shopping is not the only solution. The real challenge is to take the time to love those on our lists, without putting another frivolous bunny suit or hazardous air rifle under the Christmas tree.


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