Last month, I was kind of a pain at my grocery store’s deli counter. I didn’t mean to be, but my cold-cut order was more complicated than I’d imagined. The employee had to dig around in the back to find more pepper-crusted turkey breast for me. But the service was genuinely excellent. They came back smiling and weighed it perfectly on the first try. As they handed me my payload of wrapped sandwich meat, I felt a nagging awkwardness: I wanted to tip but had no option to do so. I haltingly asked if there was a jar to drop some cash into, and they politely thanked me but said they couldn’t accept gratuity.
Walking around the store, I couldn’t shake a feeling of discomfort. Why? I’d never previously felt compelled to tip at the deli counter, even when service was great. Gradually, I realized that my tipping expectations have shifted in recent years. I’m often less sure when and where and how much to tip for certain services—because it’s suddenly very normal to be asked for a tip everywhere, for a new range of goods and services. Point-of-sale machines from the likes of Toast, Square, and Clover are a convenient, flexible alternative-payment method for small and pop-up businesses. And they’ve created an inescapable tipping culture centered on quick button taps rather than loose change. Late last year, even Starbucks got on board and introduced touch-screen credit-card tipping in many of its 15,000-plus stores across the country.
For years, I’ve happily subscribed to the practice of throwing down at least 20 percent almost anytime the little iPad spins my direction. Like everyone else, I’ve been confronted with some overreach. I’ve been prompted to tip north of 50 percent for a T-shirt at a concert-merch tent; recently, a self-checkout kiosk at an airport asked me if I wanted to tip 25 percent for a coconut water, even though I hadn’t interacted with anyone. The screen beckons at the coffee shop, no matter whether your order was for a bottle of water or a six-step mocha. Years ago, I embarrassed myself by clumsily typing in $200 when I meant to tip $2 for a cold brew, prompting an awkward voiding of the sale.
The new tipping culture is confusing at best. I’ve found that some employees feel as uncomfortable about the point-of-sale moment as many consumers do. One barista in Colorado told me that he’d watched a customer contort his fingers on the tablet to make it look like he was tipping 20 percent when he was really selecting “No tip”; far from being offended, the barista said he now deploys the tactic when checking out elsewhere. Other service workers I spoke with suggested that the tablets aren’t the real problem here: If you can afford a $7 latte, they argued, why are you bristling at a $1 tip that would help your server?
And a long-running theory that technology has made people into better tippers may also be more complicated than it appears. A bartender at a Delta SkyClub in Seattle told me that incorporating a personal Venmo QR code into his work has drastically improved his tips. A Park and Ride–shuttle driver told me that digital tipping has hurt him, because people now tend not to carry cash. Square sent me data showing that tips received by both full-service and quick-serve restaurants exploded from 2020 to 2021; growth continued in 2022, but more modestly—full-service was up by more than 25 percent in the third quarter of 2022, and quick-service restaurants were up nearly 17 percent. Despite complaints, people are still tipping well and often.
It’s clear, in any case, that tech has upended tipping, creating a pervasive sense of cultural confusion about parts of the practice. And it’s been exacerbated by societal upheaval from the pandemic, mounting cultural and political frustrations, and broken business models. Employees and consumers are caught in the middle of these larger forces, and the result is a feeling of uncertainty at the moment of transaction.
It’s not that modern tipping is “out of control,” as CNN recently put it—a framework that seems to communicate a lack of compassion for service workers, whose minimum wage is staggeringly low in many states. There have always been vindictive customers, bad tippers, and class conflict, and stories about tablet-induced guilt trips have been popping up for a decade now. The new tipping weirdness is about something bigger. Service employees have been made to work through a pandemic, often without adequate protections. On top of that, they’ve had to deal with patrons behaving much more aggressively since mid-2020. Customer-facing employees are burned out, and consumers are more erratic, which means ample opportunities for resentment. More frequent prompts to tip can dredge up complex feelings of guilt and force us to confront difficult conversations: Why do some service industries have standardized tipping cultures, while others don’t? Why did Black service employees receive less money in tips during the pandemic than other employees?
Even the positive aspects of the way we tip now only highlight the injustices in our modern economy. A rise in tipping is a clear benefit for workers, but it also perpetuates a system in which employers can pay workers unfair wages and ask customers to make up the difference. The Fair Labor Standards Act requires an employer to pay a tipped employee only $2.13 an hour in direct wages, as long as the tips they garner in combination add up to the state’s minimum wage. And the digital-tipping element adds another roadblock to workers’ getting their fair share. Delivery services and apps have shifted tipping away from restaurants and over to the gig workers and companies that provide the door-to-door service, creating another wrinkle. At quick-serve locations, traditional tip jars can be cleared out at the end of a day or a shift, whereas digital terminals collect the money to be distributed later. Point-of-sale machines, too, can take a cut of tips, which irritates some users. “I really don’t like how fees are taken out of my tips,” one massage therapist wrote on Square’s seller community board in 2020. “I don’t ask for tips, people give them to me. They are a continued generosity for the service I provide and I think it’s wrong for Square to take that money.”
Ultimately, these tablets accomplish what so much tech-enabled automation does: adding another layer of abstraction between a business’s decisions and its customers. And when customers feel like they’re being taken advantage of by a business’s choice (say, a sneaky 30 percent tip default), they tend to lash out at the workers in front of them—the people least responsible for the decision. It’s another way that technology, when poorly or cynically implemented, can pit consumers against lower-wage employees.
“What a lot of customers don’t seem to realize is that there are limits to how we as business owners can customize the tipping screen,” Zack Bolotin, the owner of Porchlight Coffee and Records in Seattle, told me. Porchlight’s tipping screen features three fixed dollar amounts: $1, $2, and $3, as well as “Other” or “No tip.” But once the total goes over $10, it switches to fixed percentages—a standard practice for Square terminals. “The awkward part is that we also sell a lot of merchandise and records, so often we’ll get a grand total of $50 and then have to flip the screen around, which will show tipping percentages. Clearly no one working expects a tip on records or a T-shirt, but in order to get to the receipt screen, the customer is faced with a tipping screen first.”
A spokesperson for Square suggested that this isn’t uncommon. According to her, more and more businesses are turning to new revenue streams to weather a tricky economy—coffee shops rolling out breakfast menus or wine lists, or restaurants offering cooking classes—which might complicate everything.
I’ve begun to think that modern tipping’s awkwardness comes less from our desire to compensate for service and much more from the fact that the practice sits at the center of a very complicated cultural, socioeconomic, and political Venn diagram. People who work service jobs are exhausted, frequently exploited, often underpaid, and caught in a precarious, damaged industry model. They’ve endured laboring through a global health crisis, during which they’ve been dubbed essential, but have often been treated as expendable and undeserving of hazard pay. At the same time, plenty of consumers have felt tremendous guilt for the privilege of working from home during the pandemic and renewed respect for the people who deliver packages to their doors and put food on their shelves.
Some of these sentiments were reflected in the pandemic’s tipping boom, whose residual effects we may still be experiencing. Consumption has never been easier, and that has the added effect of making some consumers feel queasy about where their money goes and who benefits. Tipping, in some ways, acts as a barometer for all of these complicated feelings, and the technology forces workers and consumers to confront them more frequently than ever. In a sense, we are watching cultural behaviors change in real time in a volatile cultural and economic environment. Tipping feels weird because everything feels weird in America in 2023.