Why some restaurant customers still favor tip-based compensation even when their ideals don't support it

I’m an enthusiast of the food and drink scene, but also someone with an active interest in increasing my awareness of inequalities, issues of fairness and equity in workplaces, etc. Naturally my interests sometimes intersect, and in this case thoughts and conversations around things like tipping practices and culture arise. Recently as I’ve seen more restaurants trying to embrace a tipless/“gratuity”-included model, and the backlash some have received, I’ve been thinking more about what’s going on here.

In general I support the idea of eliminating tips. The way that tipped employees’ wages have been allowed to be below the mandated minimums based on a presumption of meeting it through tips seems like a terrible idea on the face of it. And while some restaurant or bar employees do benefit from relatively decent earnings based on good tips, across the employees of any given business, and the industry as a whole, the overall distribution of wages is highly unequal, even for essentially identical levels of skill, effort, charm, etc. So it is tempting to cast the “keep things the way they are!” crowd as merely ignorant at best, or classist, elitist, or worse. And those aspects may be at play. But I think it’s worth trying to understand the motivations of people who favor the tipping model.

I think an important (and perhaps somewhat relatable!) aspect of people’s psychology that might tend to support the tipping model is the desire for fairness themselves, the desire to exert some control over whether things seem fair to them. Whether consciously or otherwise, I think people like being able to tip in part because they have some ability to reward or punish people for experiences (service) that are otherwise out of their control. Few other industries give people this ability, and it’s clearly problematic, but imagine if it were the norm for other positions (and look at those where it already/still is). Don’t you think people would likely want to be able to keep a “tradition” of being able to tip a bus driver more or less based on whether they liked the person’s driving? Or how about a grocery checkout clerk if they did their job quickly or slowly, or loaded the bags well or poorly?

Let me be clear that I don’t think any of those jobs should involve tips. I also think it is selfish and often classist to think this way, to believe that your individual experience of how someone does their job should entitle you partly determine how much money they make. But on a more fundamental emotional level I kind of get it. It sucks feeling like you’re getting a bad deal, a bad experience, having to endure and unfair situation, and being helpless to do anything about it. Maybe you can’t change it, but if you’re in a bar or restaurant you can express your feelings through what you choose to tip, and people widely believe as well that the fear of bad tips will motivate good service. It’s questionable whether that’s true, and it’s an ugly approach to take in any case.

So, I’m not arguing in favor of the desire to continue the tipping model. But I think this basic emotional desire, to be able to control more things in your life, express your feelings in more ways, more places, to more people (without consequence to yourself), while perhaps immature, is a useful piece of the puzzle. It may help explain why even people who are reasonably liberal, fair-minded, and in favor of everyone earning a far wage in general, might still be in favor of keeping the tipping model. Real fairness (fairness in compensation in this case) is competing subconsciously with their own desire to have control, an ability to express their feelings about an experience, etc. These are powerful, emotional qualities ending up in potentially opposing positions. So it becomes a bit less surprising that there are sometimes these contradictions in people’s beliefs and behaviors.

Anyway I thought it was an interesting and perhaps useful thought. I haven’t looked around to see if people are already talking about this, but I’ve read a number of articles about the tip/no tip debate and haven’t really seen this mentioned. I’d welcome your thoughts on it.