A communist’s guide to tipping in Seattle

Vietnamese currency honoring Ho Chi Minh. (Photo from Flickr by David Holt)
(Photo from Flickr by David Holt)

“Would you like more ice tea?”

An American waitress gave us a mysterious smile as a “friendly” reminder about the most important reason for her attentive: the tip.

My mom and dad — visiting from Vietnam — were baffled as she kept checking on us every thirty minutes, circling around like a shark waiting for its dinner.

My dad shook his head as he pulled out his wallet, wondering how much to leave.

“I basically have to do a lot of improvising,” he reflected later. “[The amount of the tip] depends on the fanciness of the restaurant and how good the food was. More importantly, you’ll never know if you happened to tip the wrong amount.”That confusion has a lot of people wondering if we shouldn’t get rid of tipping altogether. The minimum wage hikes that are going into effect in Seattle and other cities around the U.S. are pushing restauranteurs in that direction too.

An attempt by “Top Chef” star Tom Colicchio kicked off America’s “no tipping” trend in 2015. Colicchio’s trial run for the policy was at his New York City restaurant Craft, and After finding some success during lunch, he decided to expand it to dinner service.

Seattle restaurants like El Gaucho, Walrus and the Carpenter and Ivar’s Salmon House have followed suit.

“I believe it’s time to change the way people get paid,” Colicchio told the NY Post. “Wait staff should no longer be beholden to someone who might not like the way they look or act.”

While abolishing tips has become a recent trend in the United States, many other cultures around the world never had it in the first place.

In Japan and Korea, tipping is considered an offensive move that depreciates the servers’ honor. Such a gesture is considered just as corrupt and shady as bribing a government officials.

My parents’ first trip to the United States had them confused about the tipping system. (Photo by Linh Bui)
My parents’ first trip to the United States had them confused about the tipping system. (Photo by Linh Bui)

In Vietnam, tipping is absolutely optional: welcomed in cases of outstanding service, but never expected.

My father — who was a microeconomics major in the Ho Chi Minh City University of Economics and studied restaurant management and finance in Switzerland — reasons that servers do a better job if they don’t have to spend every moment of their jobs worrying about their compensation.

That might sound like a utopian vision of workers more motivated by pride in a job well done than a paycheck — but it worked for him at the restaurant my parents ran in Ho Chi Minh City for 20 years.

Americans usually tip their habitual amount, not as a reflection of the service they get, anyway, right? That could lead to a troublesome situation where American servers profile guests and give some special treatment.

It turns out it cuts the other way as well.

study by the Center for Hospitality Research at Cornell University confirmed that waiters’ physical appearance and the nuances of their behavior correlate more to big tips than the actual quality of service does. The study even quantified just how much larger tips waiters could expect if they did things like starting conversations with diners, moving physically closer to them, or even touching them.

Most of that would never fly back home in Vietnam. In countries that are heavily influenced by Confucianism, even public displays of affection by couples are frowned upon — imagine being publicly intimate with someone you don’t know or care about in hopes of a bigger tip. Vietnamese people generally appreciate anything that is genuine and comes from the bottom of the heart, so being friendly just for a big tip would be a big turn off.

Tipping may be demonstrably unfair, but American customers are still attached to it, says Cathy Schultz, a server at Ivar’s Salmon House, one of the Seattle restaurants that recently replaced tips with higher menu prices last summer.

“Customers were surprised in disbelief, some of them even insisted on tipping anyway,” she said describing the change at her workplace last summer. “Half of the employees did not like the policy. The other half, including me, love it.”

A typical lunch hour at the Cam Xuc restaurant run by my parents, a lively and busy scene where Ho Chi Minh City's office workers grab a quick meal before rushing back to work. (Photo by Tuan Bui)
A typical lunch hour at the Cam Xuc restaurant run by my parents, a lively and busy scene where Ho Chi Minh City’s office workers grab a quick meal before rushing back to work. (Photo by Tuan Bui)

The 5-foot-3 brunette with expressive hazel eyes said that she couldn’t come close to the tips her tall, blue eyed and blonde haired co-workers got, despite the equal effort they put into the job.

“I felt discriminated against and extremely unhappy because at the end of the day, restaurant employees always go home with different wages, no matter how nice and attentive you tried to be,” she said. “You just feel like they don’t deserve it.”

With the implementation of the no tipping policy, she said the wait staff stopped spending so much time envying each and instead focused on the quality of customer service. Employees seemed to get along better and felt a sense of equality, unity and justice. Marx would be proud!

But all joking aside, in a communist country like Vietnam, employers in the private sector still must follow government guidelines for exactly how much they should pay the employees. Anyone in violation is subject to a big fine and might even lose their business.

Those strict laws give employees a fair wage that they can depend on without the need for tips. It sounds a lot like the direction Seattle is moving with the $15 minimum wage.

And that’s this Marxist’s two cents: the workers of the world have nothing to lose but our chains… and maybe a few extra dollars in tips!

1 Comment

  1. Restaurant servers don’t have to rely only on pride to do a good job without tips: managers reward their best workers with raises, promotions, and bonuses, as they do in other industries. With most servers earning the minimum wage ($2.13/hour federally for tipped workers), managers have very little latitude to do that today. This is part of why Danny Meyer has called tipping socialist (not in a good way – http://nyti.ms/1nMwgqM).

    Tipping is a poor substitute for the true intentions of either socialism/communism (equality of opportunity and outcomes, as it’s biased on looks) or capitalism (rewarding the best service to improve production…as again it’s biased on looks). Kudos to Seattle and the 23 tip-free restaurants there (https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1TkNUMp4OYyumPp6IxUKO93UyyNWaI02J400APCx9jfM) for moving us toward a better society, regardless of sociopolitical persuasion.

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