British Columbia

Tipping can be 'confusing and problematic.' So why do we still do it?

Rising inflation now has many consumers rethinking their spending habits, including how much and how often one should tip.

Rising inflation has consumers rethinking how much and how often they should tip

As opportunities to tip increase, so does the pressure put on customers. (Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

As the joint owner of a restaurant in East Vancouver, Jackie Avery has spent more time than most thinking about the practice of tipping.

But even she admits she's not sure what to do at a growing number of businesses offering the option to tip staff. 

"I honestly don't know what is appropriate," said Avery, co-owner of The Burrow, a Mexican-influenced restaurant.

Avery says she's developed a basic rule of thumb — when a coffee shop, takeout restaurant or other business offers an option to tip on the point-of-sale terminal, she adds 20 per cent.

"If there's a tip option there and there's a 20 per cent option, I just pick it," she said. "I have no idea. I feel baffled about what the protocol is as I imagine a lot of us are feeling right now as more and more tip options pop up in more irregular places."

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the practice of tipping became a topic of conversation as customers looked to acknowledge workers who continued to work under challenging circumstances. Rising inflation now has many consumers rethinking their spending habits, including how much and how often one should tip.

Jennifer Grant, a Kelowna-based business etiquette consultant, says tipping is a practice that, in North America at least, is both universal and deeply personal. For Grant, gratuities are an opportunity to show gratitude. 

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the practice of tipping became a topic of conversation as customers looked to acknowledge workers who continued to work under challenging circumstances. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

"My personal philosophy is that I'm definitely always cognizant that I want to reward or appreciate someone for great service or going the extra mile," she said.

Simon Pek, an assistant professor at the University of Victoria's Gustavson School of Business, says there are more opportunities to tip than ever before. Cafes and limited-service restaurants offer tipping options, as do so-called gig-economy services like Uber and Skip the Dishes. Even YouTube allows users to tip content creators. 

As opportunities to tip increase, so does the pressure — however subtle — put on customers.

"If the machine is put towards us and we're looking at the [tip] options, we know that two seconds later, the person that's providing service is going to have a look and if we didn't tip that can be a bit awkward," Grant said.

So how much do people tip? Grant estimates an average range of 15 to 20 per cent, with Pek suggesting it may be slightly higher than that.

Why do we still tip?

The culture of tipping persists despite its many shortcomings, says Pek. Leaving part of a worker's compensation to the whim of consumers, rather than the business owner, can lead to income volatility. 

"There's a possibility of discrimination as certain groups of workers who perform at roughly the same level might get tipped less than others," he says.

Avery says tips at The Burrow are pooled and distributed among the entire team.

Calling tipping "confusing and problematic," Avery says she would love to adopt a system similar to that in Australia, which offers servers higher wages with the costs baked into the price of food. Going against the tide of North American tipping culture, she says, can be too much for a small business like hers.

"I think it's too risky as a business to be outside of the stream, then someone browses your prices online and they're like, 'How could the burrito be this much?'"

Should you tip and how much should you tip? It's an evergreen question, which Canadians are still divided on. We discuss the changing tipping culture with Jackie Avery, joint owner of Vancouver restaurant The Burrow.

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