How to be a better tipper: Learning and working the four cultures of tipping

Are you one of those people who are never quite sure whether it’s appropriate to leave a tip, or is it always quite obvious to you? What about when visiting a different country? Do you rely on the tipping section of your guidebook, or do you figure that since you’ll be leaving tomorrow you can freeload and leave nothing? Have you ever insisted on giving a tip and found this insistence offended your hosts, or have you had the opposite experience of offending by walking straight out? Perhaps like Nigel Richardson, trying to get it right leaves you ‘feeling like a chimp at the Ritz’.

Do you understand tipping culture, or is it all just too subtle?

[Image credit: Marcin Wichary]

In the forty-odd years it has been around Grid-group cultural theory has been used to cast light on many kinds of social interaction, and this year it has been applied to the sometimes fraught process of tipping.

Fisher, David ‘Grid-group analysis and tourism: tipping as a cultural behavior‘, Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change, 7: 1, 34 — 47 [DOI: 10.1080/14766820902807672]

David Fisher from Lincoln University, New Zealand, has made a worthwhile attempt at analyzing the phenomenon of tipping in relation to Grid-group cultural theory. I think his matrix of 16 possible interactions is interesting, but the paper as a whole relies quite heavily on a misunderstanding of Cultural theory. I don’t think the cultural biases that are identified by the theory are strictly located in the heads of individuals. This is not a psychological theory. Rather it is an attempt at explaining the relationship between individual behaviour and the institutional context (in a broad sense) in which it occurs.

I would suggest that when we think about whether to tip or not we are looking for clues about what kind of context we are in, to identify the dominant cultural bias of our environment. We then make a series of decisions about whether we wish to conform to that context or defect from it.

So, for instance, having arrived in Australia or New Zealand and ascertained that these are relatively egalitarian contexts, it becomes clear that tipping is unlikely to be a widespread expectation, and indeed, tips are often pooled by staff, and not regarded as a significant substitute for pay. However, in an expensive hotel with obsequious, uniformed porters we would make an exception and recognise that this is a more hierarchical context than usual and that tipping is not only expected here – it is a kind of cultural performance that reinforces the hierarchical culture of the hotel – in other words, we can tip for fun.

Travelling in the US, we might recognise a more Individualistic culture that expects individual staff to be able to enhance their pay by means of ‘extraordinary service’. In other words, those who stand out from the crowd deserve to be rewarded for it – indeed this may be their main reward.

In many countries there is a preponderance of workaday cafes, takeaways and other basic eateries which operate on a broadly Fatalist model: everyone is out for what they can get and freeloading is the expectation. A typical comment might be: ‘We don’t have a tip jar because the last one got stolen’. In this context, customers are expected to try to avoid paying a tip. It’s surprising and puzzling when they try to leave extra money.

So from a Cultural theory perspective, tipping is just one of many social activities that are used to organise institutions according to the four different cultural biases.

New Typology of Tipping table

What this table shows:

  1. The context in which tipping is possible, typically a restaurant or hotel embedded within a city, a region and a nation, can be described in terms of Grid-Group Cultural Theory’s four cultural biases.
  2. Expectations regarding tipping can be actively managed or passively managed. In the former case, there will be overt messages about tipping (one way or another), such as with a sign reading ‘Tips accepted!’ or a note on the menu or tariff reading ‘includes gratuities’, or similar. In the latter, the customers have to work it our for themselves.
  3. Tipping entails certain types of ranking among staff. This ranges from ‘good workers deserve all the tips they earn’ (Individualist), to ‘management deserves a per centage of tips’ (Hierarchical), to ‘whoever gets the tip keeps quiet about it’ (Fatalist), to ‘all deserve an equal share of tips, to even out the luck factor’ (Egalitarian).
  4. The final distribution of tip earnings and its relationship to other kinds of earnings reflects and reinforces the dominant cultural bias.

From an individual’s perspective it is not that we are ‘individualists’ or ‘egalitarians’ or whatever, but rather that we are each equipped with four alternative, contradictory behavioural models, which we can rapidly switch between, choosing to conform to or rebel against the social expectations we detect.

Viewed in this light, it will be seen that individual customers have only a limited scope to interact with the cultural bias of their environment. Basically they are limited to tip/don’t tip. However, this decision can strongly affect the host cultural bias, since it needs to adapt somehow to the presence or otherwise of tipping. Tipping behaviour also locates the customer in relation the cultural bias of the context. This can be characterised as follows:

  • In a Hierarchical context, tipping behaviour indicates class or lack of class (the tippers are socially superior to the tipped, while non-tippers fail to discern this and thereby downgrade themselves);
  • in an Individualist context it represents ability or inability to discern and reward quality and also offers an opportunity to signal success by implying disposable wealth;
  • in an Egalitarian context tipping represents an insensitivity or hostility to Egalitarian norms; and
  • in a Fatalist context getting away with not tipping indicates skill at low-risk opportunism (whereas tipping signals gullability).

It would be worth making an ethnographic comparison between establishments frequented by locals and establishments frequented by tourists within the same quarter, city, region or nation. Some hypotheses could be tested. Specifically, it would be expected that where the tourists tend to leave tips, or else not leave tips, the establishments would adapt their cultural bias to accommodate this, and in doing so would differentiate themselves from similar but primarily local establishments in a range of ways which could be documented.

In extreme cases, the dominant cultural bias of the aggregate of tourists could have such an impact that it overwhelms the dominant cultural bias of the host (at a particular scale – business, city, region, nation). In other words, an establishment could deviate from the dominant cultural bias of its context in order to attract custom from tourists who in aggregate display a rival cultural bias. Confirmation or disconfirmation of this speculation could be tested.

So tipping is complicated because it can mean many different things in many different contexts. To use the jargon, the act of tipping is overdetermined. However the good news is that this complexity isn’t endless. It really comes down to just four cultures. And grid-group Cultural theory means you can understand it for yourself. You really don’t need to check the guidebook every time you see a tip jar.

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