How technology and the pandemic changed tipping forever

Douglas Magazine - June/July 2023 How technology and the pandemic changed tipping forever.

Call it tipflation. Thanks to a combination of technology, social pressure and a pandemic that accelerated the adoption of cashless payments, card machines have become ubiquitous. Unfortunately, so have tip requests. At a time when the prices of many goods and services are already higher than ever, we’re paying even more to the businesses who provide them.

From oil changes to takeout food, the “tip nudge” has quickly become a well-established norm in Canada. Cashless machines have made it simple for businesses to prompt a gratuity option, even in industries where tipping previously wasn’t part of the cost. Worse, it now seems like 15 per cent is considered rude.

Tipping is supposed to be a reward for excellent service, but studies have shown that the vast majority of people are motivated more by social pressure. They believe that tipping is expected of them, and they don’t want to deviate from the cultural norms — especially if other people are watching and possibly judging them.

Digital point-of-sale systems aren’t the only way a business requests tips, but it’s one of the hardest to refuse. Unlike tip jars, which are easy to ignore, tip-by-tablet becomes a public affair. You’re forced to declare your level of generosity or cheapness to anyone within eyesight, including your server.

The tip prompts are also designed to push the customer into not just leaving a tip, but leaving an amount that the business “suggests.” Businesses can set those amounts, which is why one place might go with 10, 15 and 20 per cent, while another might request 20, 25 or even 30 per cent. 

They can also enable “smart tipping,” which switches from percentages to dollars if a purchase is under a certain amount. That’s how you might get a suggestion to leave an extra $2 for a $4 latte, a 50 per cent tip.

There seems to be a tipping point for tipping and that’s where food is concerned. We’re inclined to tip a barista who makes a fancy coffee drink, or an attentive waiter, but not so much to someone who hands you your dry cleaning. A barber or hair stylist? Absolutely. A bellhop who lugs your luggage? Of course. But a clerk who hands you a bottle of wine off the shelf behind him? Not so much.

Lizzie Post is the co-president of the Vermont-based Emily Post Institute and the author of several etiquette books. She says that if you’re asked to tip for a service that doesn’t traditionally ask for tips, there’s nothing wrong with saying no.

“I think it’s really important not to give into the guilt,” Post says. “I tend to personally say if it’s not a traditional tipping situation, and nobody’s gone above and beyond to create some kind of amazing experience or be extraordinarily helpful, I’m hitting ʻno tipʼ in those moments and not feeling terribly bad about it.”