From aristocratic gestures to contemporary customs; how the tipping culture came to stay

Tipping Culture
Two thirds of people in a new Bankrate survey said they have at least one negative feeling about tipping, and 30% said tipping culture is "out of control."SDI Productions/Getty Images

Tipping, a common practice in many parts of the world, is deeply embedded in social interactions, particularly in the service industry.  It has its origins in Europe of the Middle Ages – a period which lasted from about 500 to 1,500 A.D.

But have you ever pondered how this custom started? Tipping culture has profound historical, cultural, and economic origins that have evolved over centuries into the habit we know today.

Historical context

Tipping originated in Europe, specifically in aristocratic communities in the 17th century. It was traditional for affluent patrons to provide gratuities, or “vails,” to their workers or attendants as a token of appreciation for outstanding service.

Like marriage proposals in the old times, these gratuities were frequently secretly delivered in little envelopes or slipped into the recipient’s hand.

How did it spread to North America?
Tipping spread to North America with European immigrants, gaining popularity in cities such as New York and Boston during the nineteenth century. As the United States industrialised, tipping became more widespread, affecting a greater range of service providers such as restaurant servers, hotel personnel, and taxi drivers.

Economic factors

One key reason contributing to the prominence of tipping was the development of a wage system that permitted employers to pay workers, particularly in the service industry, lower base salaries with the expectation that gratuities would supplement their income. This practice still exists today, with many service workers dependent on gratuities to make ends meet.

Social norms and peer pressure

Over time, tipping evolved into a social standard, as well as an economic exchange. Customers felt forced to tip in order to meet society expectations and avoid judgement or stigma. This peer pressure supported the tipping culture, ensuring its continued predominance in numerous businesses.

Some places where tipping is common

Restaurants

Tipping is common in many nations, with gratuity rates ranging from 15% to 20% of the total bill. While some restaurants have experimented with alternate models such as service-inclusive pricing, tipping is still strongly embedded in dining culture.

Hospitality

Hotel employees, such as housekeepers, bellhops, and concierges, sometimes rely on tips as a primary source of revenue. Guests can tip for services such as carrying luggage, arranging transportation, and providing special amenities.

Transportation

Tipping is ubiquitous in the transportation industry, with taxi drivers, ride-share drivers and chauffeurs collecting tips for courteous service or assistance with luggage. In some circumstances, tipping may be calculated as a percentage of the fare or as a fixed amount.

The tipping culture we see today grew from centuries-old practices entrenched in aristocratic societies to become a common practice in many service industries throughout the world.

While its origins are diverse, tipping remains an important part of social interactions and economic exchanges, influencing both consumer behaviour and worker remuneration policies.

Understanding the historical and sociological elements that underpin tipping culture might help explain its persistence and influence future conversations.

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