The table’s been wiped clean. The glasses refilled one last time. You’re sitting back in satisfaction. Just then, from the corner of your eye, you see the waiter bring out a slim, leather-bound folder. You sit up in attention. Because you know he’s brought out the bill. But it’s not paying the bill that’s making you anxious. It’s what follows.

The tip. Or rather, the decision to tip.

Under the watchful gaze of the waiter, you try doing quick calculations with the bill. You grapple with the math, but also with years of social conditioning that’s taught you to both ration your money and be generous with it.

You try and remember how the food tasted, how good the service was and what the difference was between what you expected and what you were served up. You try hard to make a rational decision based on cues you’ve picked up throughout the evening. In the end, it’s too much. You put down an arbitrary amount of cash, and make a quick exit, in the fear that you’ve paid too much. Or too little.

Social contract. Class catharsis. An off-the-book economic transfer of excess money. Tipping is a chimaera that no one’s been able to quite grasp.

“The modern construct of tipping in India comes from the British. In 17th and 18th century England, tipping was an extension of your ‘noblesse oblige’, where the aristocratic rich would press few coins into the hands of attendants and butlers,” says Kurush Dalal, a Mumbai-based archaeologist and culinary anthropologist. Closer to our times, when people began frequenting restaurants, the practice of leaving a little change behind at the table became popular. It sowed the seed for how we’ve come to encounter tipping now.

But as tipping cultures around the world have developed and aged, there is no clear indication of why tipping happens. Academics in the tip centre of the world—the US—have tried to answer this question in myriad ways. After all, every year, Americans spend a whopping $14 billion or more on tips alone.

There are research papers and surveys aplenty—historical, cultural, economic and behavioural—to decode this impulse to tip. People have hung around outside restaurants, interviewing patrons. They’ve run rigorous analyses. They’ve even written out complex theoretical formulae. But none have managed to piece together a complete picture.

Like the four blind men who could only describe different parts of an elephant, not the whole thing. Worse yet, they can’t even explain why there’s an elephant in the room, which is what tipping becomes whenever we’re faced with an expectant waiter/porter/parking attendant or just some old guy who helped with directions.

Decoded or not, the decision to tip (or not tip) does seem hardwired into our systems.


Olina Banerji

Based in Delhi, Olina writes about mega-trends in urban mobility, education, skilling and the environment, with a focus on how institutions and innovations can help cities grow sustainably. She is a graduate of the London School of Economics, and has worked previously with India Today and global non-profit Ashoka.

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