A Meditation on Tipping

Tipping is one of the everyday experiences of living in a new place that makes you immediately aware of being away from home. When at home, I understand food service workers, taxi drivers, package delivery people, hotel bellhops, and valet parking drivers to be among the more poorly paid workers. I tip to the maximal extent of the socially acceptable range. I don’t usually think too much about how that range comes about.

We need to start several thousand years ago to understand the moral basis of this outwardly simple exchange. The word ‘gratuity’ is the same as the word ‘grace’, ‘congratulations’,  and ‘charisma’, but also merci, grazie, and gracias! [1] They all derive from a word-root found in the southeast range of Indo-European languages, exemplified by the Sanskrit gir, a song or hymn of praise, but also of grace, or to give thanks. [2] These come into the northwestern languages through the Greek Χάρις (Charis), charity. Benveniste notes that this semantic heritage requires us to understand ‘gratuity’ not as a isolated grant or benefit, but as the locally-correct behavior governing relationship between kin, between strangers, between socially superior and inferior persons, and between dependent and independent persons.

Gratuities are given not in order to obtain an economic return but to give pleasure within the parameters of these relations. “Rounding up’ as the servers make change sees their task with almost no effort on the diners’ part. As such tips exist alongside ordinary exchanges, but operate from a different social logic: they calculate social position instead of value. We can exchange in many ways with other people: “pleasures, woes, secrets, marriageable children, insults, vengeance, hospitality, conversation, stories or songs, and above all gifts, but the economic justification for exchanges based on a calculation of value is subsidiary or lacking altogether.” [3]

Gratuities are double-edged. They can be used to honor or to shame, express sympathy or to make one feel needy. If the tip is too large or too small for the context, it can humiliate or incite anger. This is why we feel anxiety around tipping. If you get the amount wrong, even a small gift can have the unintended effects.

A gratuity in a restaurant or taxi is a paradox. It is a gesture that purports to be complete in itself. It only requires acceptance to active its goal, which is to establish a tie of mutual respect between the giver and receiver. Here is the paradox: that tie almost always ends as soon as the tip is received. It cannot be given with the intention of receiving anything in return since the service was already completed. The expectation of a future relationship between the parties is contingent on factors beyond the control of either. If a tip is given in expectation of future service, it abuses the notion of generosity. And if it is not given in the hope of some return favor, then the receiver could interpret it as a gesture of pity, an arrogant demonstration of the superiority of the giver.  This ambiguity could be resolved by the size of the tip. When does the receiver of a tip feel honored rather than humbled? When the size of the award exceeds expectations. Where do these expectations come from? The tips of other patrons. In this way, an auction of sorts ensues the end result of which is a growth in honorable tips from 5% to 10% to 15% to 20%, and in the future, farther still.

The tipping practices are not confined to their place of origin. People travel. The effect of Americans in Vienna is bizarre. Servers come to expect that those patrons identified as Americans, Canadians or Mexicans (primarily through their accent in English and/or their inability to communicate in German) will leave a 15-20% tip, “as is the custom in their country”. If they don’t, the servers feel ‘stiffed!’ Place of origin determines the rules of morality, a very Roman concept (natio) but one that is alive and well in Viennese tourist districts.


1. The English word ‘thank’ shares the same semantic space as these words, but derives from think and seemingly has nothing to do with gratuity, except in practice.

2. Benveniste, Emile. 1969. Le Vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes, Vol. 1, Economie, parenté, société. Paris: Editions de Minuit. P. 199.

3. Pitt-Rivers, J. , 2011, The place of grace in anthropology. HAU 1(1). DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau1.1.017.

The Viennese Brunch Bunch

While walking down a main street in Vienna at 11:15 AM this fine Saturday morning, I was struck by the crowd in the Josef Brot bakery. This is one of four artisan bakers left in city that once had an artisan bakery on every block! I wasn’t buying the $8, 1lb. loaf of handmade, organic bread, but I went inside anyway to see what they were offering. That’s when I notice a large, full dining room to the side of the bakery counter and a line of people waiting for tables.

BRUNCH! I wrote an article about Viennese mealtimes back in 1981 and brunch was not one of those mealtimes then. I wasn’t so much surprised to see people eating a meal at 11:00 AM on a Saturday as I was drawn to the sheer size of the crowd, and the number of people at the tables. It was Brooklyn-esque in it’s magnitude.



Just the previous day, I had the pleasure to read Adam Yuet Chau’s article on menues, Culinary Subjectification: The translated world of menus and orders. The premise of the article is intriguing: “How would one translate the word “menu” (i.e., restaurant menu) into the native languages of people without any experience of restaurants and menus? And how would you explain to them how ordering from the menu works? It quickly became clear that translating the word “menu” entails not only translating the world of restaurant-going and ordering from the menu but also our (i.e., ideal-typically Western) very conceptual and social world, which is another way to say that what seems to be a humble piece of paper listing a certain number of dishes is itself made by the world in which it is found and in turn contributes in a significant way to making that world.”

His conclusion is that a menu is a world defining artifact, a cosmo-menu that is “[m]ore than merely a piece of paper (or cardboard), the menu is at once a parole
(though the broader menu universe carries langue qualities), a cultural logic (or
menu-logic?), a sociocognitive tool, a generative and structuring principle, a narrative,
an organizational device (conceptual, taxonomic, as well as social), a civilizing machine, a conduit of (culinary) governmentality, an ideological vehicle (e.g.,
about choice, freedom, taste, culturedness, civility, cosmopolitanism, social class,
etc.), an ideological state apparatus in the Althusserian sense, a textographic fetish
or text act, and so on.” He explains all of these terms in the article for readers who are not cultural anthropologists. Suffice to say, you can read a lot of how people construct their realities from a restaurant menu!

A glance at the menu reveals both Viennese and international items. The first two items on the left are traditional Viennese coffeehouse breakfasts: Several pieces of bread and rolls with marmalade and butter and a soft-boiled egg.  The second adds some fresh white cheese and slices of ham to the plate with the bread and egg. The rest of the menu items are in English and should be familiar to anyone reading this blog. That is its parole, the way it speaks to us in a language we can understand. There is a logic to the arrangements of items, with breakfast items on the left and above the bold line, and more lunch-y items below. The bold line (a textographic fetish?) signals the menu’s iconographic power to ground memories and enact narratives (of breakfasts and lunches). The menu is ideological in that it permits us the freedom to choose from among the items the kitchen can produce. It then demands that we do so (or leave).  The items include both locally indexed dishes and cosmopolitan ones. The menu enacts class distinction by taking a coffeehouse standard and adding locavore adjectives, appealing to educated, aspirational customers.   All the civility of eating out is present: children locked into high chairs, multigenerational parties, public eating decorum (no throwing food, putting feet on table, public drunkenness, etc.).

What struck me as particularly important here was the menu as sociocognitive tool: The people who ordered from this menu, after having stood in line for the privilege of doing so, knew themselves to be people who would order from such a menu. Their identity as Viennese (there were no tourists here) was bound up with this act in ways that were not apparent to me before, having studied Viennese eating patterns since the mid-1970s. This was a new, desirable way of eating in public made possible by the menu. This is a new and a desirable way of being Viennese (the “Brunch Bunch’). Thank you for these tools, Adam Chau!