Tipping

by Rob Horning

18 November 2005

 

What sort of workers would refuse tips offered to them? If we accept George Orwell’s account of Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War in Homage to Catalonia, any worker who has thrown off the chains of servility to breathe the free air of a society stripped of class distinctions. It’s a point he returns to several times, the fact that he knew he was in the midst of revolution when he noticed tipping was prohibited and workers were adamantly insulted by their being offered. The first thing liberated workers do, Orwell suggests, is abolish tipping which makes workers appear as bootlickers. Tips imply the most craven sort of dependence, that you must hope for the good graces of your betters and suck up to them to earn the right to exist, to draw a wage at all for the work you do for them. Post-revolutionary workers, presumably, are working for themselves. Tips generally serve to delineate class boundaries, to cloak the system of ranks in an air of phony gratitude. Orwell knows the revolution in Spain has failed when he returns to Barcelona from the front and sees workers taking tips again.

Workers are not the only ones to suffer by tipping customs. Read any etiquette column and you are bound to see rules for tipping, which are always in a state of flux and apparently cause no end of anxiety to those bourgeois who feel called upon to pass out gratuities to every service provider they encounter. (I came across another “How and What to Tip” roundup in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal.) Tipping customs serve to keep arrivistes off-balance, to make every instance in which they invoke their class privilege (every time they purchase some service from lower-class workers) poisoned with fear of making a gaffe. Tipping is the bane of the insecure, a veritable tax on insecurity, and what can be more insecure than being member of an interstitial class, being petit bourgeois, or upper-middle class, even. Tipping is a way of making sure the wrong sort of people, the people prone to worrying about what those beneath them think about them, don’t get to accustomed to the exercise of privilege.

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