Tipping, or the pleasure of patronizing strangers.
Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Señor’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’; everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’, and said ‘Salud!’ instead of ‘Buenos dias’.
Tipping was forbidden by law; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy.
George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (1938)
Try and leave a tip to a bus driver, or a worker in the London Underground. And hope they don’t have good aim, as they throw your money back at you.
Try and leave a restaurant without giving the waiter a decent tip. And start running, away from their silent insults and your feeling of guilt.
What is the difference between these two cases? There are a number of possible ways into this issue. And they all lead us to a structural difference, that is, problem.
Unlike most jobs, that of a British waiter has somehow skipped the stages of evolution into modern working relationships. According to the extravagant rules of 20th century employment, it is the responsibility of the employer to pay the worker a salary which is the result of a process of negotiation between the person who demands work (the employer) and that who supplies work (the worker). Clearly, this complex equation of supply and demand was too complicated to be adopted by restaurant and cafe owners. Instead, they preferred to stick to the good, old method of the newspaper boy: after all, there is a child hidden inside of all of us.
Just like children doing their paper run, British waiters approach their customers with beautiful, pure docility. Was the food nice? Is there anything I can do to help you? Would you like me to cut your steak for you? Shall I chew it for you? British waiters are not workers - they are beggars with a troubling inferiority complex. In fact, if they want to get back home at night with enough money to pay for their food and rent, they have no alternative. Who would be able to live on minimum wage?
So they wake up every morning, get to their restaurant or cafe, and enact an amazing performance of regression - something a hypnotist would take hours to achieve on a patient. On the other hand, customers enter that same restaurant or cafe, eat their insultingly overpriced food, ask for the bill and - in a perverse psychological twist - get the extra bonus of having to pay an additional fee for the pleasure of patronizing a random stranger. You’ve been very good, baby, I left you a little something on the bedside table, and some more for the cab fare home. Honey.
What is the alternative, then? To stop paying tips and forcing waiters further into poverty? Definitely, this would be the best move - if one wanted the waiters to sink deeper into a paranoid submission to the sword of Damocles of the customer’s arbitrary judgment. No, in the current state of things waiters still need their tips. However, customers of restaurants and cafes still have the right (or the duty) to demand explanations for the charity fee added on top of their already overpriced food. Didn’t Marx explain that the master already gains a surplus value from the exploitation of his/her worker, even when paying a full wage? Why should we, as customers, relieve the master even from paying the normal (exploitative) salary that would result from a fair negotiation with the workers?
Such questions are not only theoretical. They can be very practical, indeed. Let us imagine that we just had some food in a restaurant. We get the (dear) bill, and, as the waiter profusely thanks us and shyly looks at us from the distance, we pay and leave a tip. Then, we take our jacket and go towards that same waiter. May I speak with the manager, please? The waiter turns pale. Was everything ok with the food? Have I done anything wrong? No, no, don’t worry, everything is fine. I just would like to speak a minute with the manager, if possible.
The manager arrives, smiling like a car salesman. If it’s a small restaurant, the manager is probably also the owner of the place. Was everything ok? How can I help you? Well, I had a look at the bill and I was a little concerned... What about? Were there any mistakes? Well, I thought that the price for the food included the payment of your workers, but then I looked around and I noticed that everyone was leaving a little alms to the waiters... and I was wondering... do you pay your workers enough? Do they need charity? Oh, no Sir, it is just a tip, a sign of your appreciation of the work of your waiter. Mmmh... but when I take the bus I don’t leave a tip to the driver, as it is the bus company that takes care of paying its workers, right? Right, Sir, but... So, I was just concerned that you are not paying your workers enough. You know, I would not dine in a place where people are exploited. But, Sir, We are not exploiting anyone! Well, in that case I don’t see why I should pay an extra fee. But, Sir... I see, you don’t know what to say, but still you did not convince me that your waiters are paid enough. Why would anyone be so servile and ‘helpful’ as a waiter, if only they had the choice? But, Sir, this is just customer service! I see, customer service... and yet when I go to a shop the shop assistant gives me customer service without having to act as a happy bunny whenever I drop a glass of wine all over the floor. They get paid by their employer like any normal worker, right? Sir, maybe you are not used to the British customs... may I suggest that you go back to your country, if you don’t like the British system? Thank you for the travel advice, Mr manager, I will definitely follow it in part. I will start not coming back here until your workers are paid decently and are not forced to rely on my charity. Also, are you really telling me that two pounds for a coffee covers only the cost of materials?
Then we walk out, and as we are passing through the door, we overhear someone else in the restaurant asking the waiter: May I speak with the manager, please?
Moving back to our initial question (what is the difference between a waiter and a bus driver), we might now attempt to offer an answer. The main difference, so it seems, is the lack of a negotiating process between employer and employee. While bus drivers negotiate directly with their employer (with the help of the union form), waiters are in a situation of paradoxical incommunicability with their employer. Instead, their relationship is mainly with the customer, who is the ultimate judge of their performance and is both burdened and awarded with the power to arbitrarily decide if the waiter’s performance has been satisfactory. This way, the employer is freed from the dangerous situation of having to negotiate with the workers, and is able to transfer any possibility of conflict and tension into the customer-waiter relationship. Pretty smart move, isn’t it? Everyone’s a loser. With the exception of the employers, of course. God bless them, as they provide us with jobs. Amen.
So, it is indeed a paradoxical feeling that I have any time I walk into a British restaurant or cafe. On the one hand, I can’t deny that my narcissistic self swells and swells under the ego massage given by the blackmailed waiters, while waiting for the final kick of self-importance in the moment I leave my bones to the dogs. On the other hand, well... Maybe I am just a masochist, or it is just another form of perversion, but... Oh, I can’t wait for the day I will go to a restaurant, I will drop a glass on the floor, spreading wine everywhere, and as I remain immobile, waiting for the waiter to come and clean my mess, I will feel something different from the usual mix of shame and arrogance. Something uneasy, this time, without the safety of a sure resolution. This time, I will know then, the game of roles of the benevolent master and the happy slave won’t work. As the waiter comes towards me, I can already taste the words that they’re going to give me, in pure honesty, with all their heart. Those beautiful, beautiful words, that only free people can afford: ‘Fuck you, Sir!’
24 May 2011, London