The culture of tipping: Endless arm twisting or fulfilling feeling?

Who else gets this feeling that lately, we are being arm twisted into paying a tip for every basic and sometimes even whack service we receive from everyone everywhere in the service industry? It is crazy.

From that fixed smile as the waiter delivers extra pieces of serviette tissues, the security guard and his animated and often miscalculated reverse parking directions, crashing handshakes from club bouncers, tired celebrity gossip, and shopworn analysis of the premier league by the Kinyozi guy, to the feigned gentleness of the kinyozi service lady who will later scald your scalp with a hot towel then proceed to scrab your skull bone with a stiff hairbrush – it’s an endless effort to get you to spend extra on the tip and I strongly believe you ought to. You will deal with your feelings later.

The feeling of being robbed willingly after you have been guilt-tripped by the expectant eyes of the waiter as they deliver the bill even though the fish was over salted and the hotel services were subpar. The whelming anger when you sense some weird energy from a waiter probably because you didn’t tip them the last time you were in the bar, for a job they are employed to do.

Let me make declare my stand. I am pro-tipping and a benefactor of tips. Sometimes out of the blue, our house food menu gets flipped from the beans that I overheard the house help being instructed not to boil using the gas to ‘each person is eating their own fried midsize tilapia and kachumbari tonight’.

My partner works in the imported-furniture industry and occasionally gets decent tips and sometimes it is not the fish but “hey here is part of my contribution to project XY.”

As a matter of fact, giving tips is so fulfilling especially when you have received exceptional service and sometimes you tip even if the actual service was not great but because of other subjective issues such as being impressed by dressing, mannerisms, or just out of the need to feel good. Science actually posits that when giving, your brain secretes “feel good” chemicals such as Serotonin which regulates your mood, Dopamine which gives you a sense of pleasure, and Oxytocin which creates a sense of connection with others.

As a young adult pauper off college, my most treasured possession in life was an HP 630 laptop and when I found an eatery that could guarantee its safety over the weekend as I went on other businesses of leisure and pleasure, I was only too glad to tip the waiter or the barman who executed its storage role every weekend for more than a year until I moved out of that neighborhood. In real sense the laptop was safer in a stranger’s hand than in the one-roomed house I lived in near Kajulu Hills, Kisumu.

The practice of giving tips to service industry professionals can be traced back to 17th century England, where patrons would give money to servers in addition to their standard wages to ensure better service.

Today, the etiquette of tipping has evolved to the point where there’s even a standardization of tipping in more established economies like the United States where diners expect a tip of 10-15 percent of the bill or more for excellent service.

In Kenya, the practice has become commonplace in restaurants, and hotels, and spread to other service industries, such as hairdressers, taxi drivers, tour guides, and bartenders to typically in my view anyone who is in the service sector other than the proprietors of those businesses, only that no one dictates the amount.

You offer what you can like me most of the time since the economy plummeted, I just offer a compliment and acknowledge the good service then leave.

Leila, one of the waiters at a popular club tells me that on a good weekend, she can take home up to Kes3000 which she contributes to her Chama as savings, and on a slow night, she can make anything from twenty to four hundred Kenya shillings. The chama money can be loaned back to her at thrice the amount of her contribution if she wanted to finance a project but a portion of it stays with the group as benevolence money so she has a safety net during emergencies and tragedies of life.

Other than earning extra, Leila says receiving tips is validating and reassures you that you are doing a useful job.

“Whether or not one gives a tip we serve them equally, it is the professional thing to do, but as a human when you see a client who tipped you last week – you feel happier to serve them than any random client,” she responds to my question as to whether they profile and treat clients based on ability or willingness to tip.

Some two security guards manning the parking spaces near the local, tell me they can make up to Kes500 each per night on weekends. How is the money utilized? One tells me it’s often food for their families, or their transport to and from work, or occasionally keg beer and online gambling.

Read also: We may not pay top dollar, but sisi ndio tuko

What’s the worst that can happen if I don’t tip you? I ask. “Well, our morale is down since it’s not our main job to look after your cars. Now imagine losing a Toyota Fielder worth millions because of a Kes50 tip or just failing to greet someone”

“You see, sometimes a bad person can try opening your vehicle but if you greeted us and or gave something, we can tell that it’s a stranger and we will intervene. Well, car theft is rare in Kisumu but it happened in Nakuru where I used to work. Sometimes, someone hits your car in the parking and we will go and get his plates or ask him to wait until you are informed. Do you think we can do all that if you dint even bother to say hi?” they take turns to explain.

While tipping is seen as a way for customers to show gratitude for and incentivize good service, it seems to be widespread more among upper-class and middle-income earners who have more disposable income than low-income earners.

At my favorite night shift Kibandski (roadside eatery) there’s no such thing as tips. The thing operates from 6pm to 6am daily at the Kondele roundabout opposite the city clock and the young men rolling chapati and women serving mandazi, soup, and coffee the whole night know no such concept, the only form of appreciation they get is their clients complementing in the quality or quantity of food.

“Here it is the customers who always want more, maybe an extra portion of ugali, pieces of meat, or more soup for being loyal clients,” the proprietor explains.

The other cohort of service providers, who rarely benefit from tips regardless of the financial status of their customers are back-of-house workers like kitchen staff and store managers, but word goes around that every job has its own perks and theirs is definitely not tips-probably something better.

Whether it’s a change in diet, chama contributions, a mug of a keg, or contribution to the baby’s school fees kitty, we cannot wish away the place of tips in our economy.

As the practice gets more mainstream, we however have to be wary not to allow employers to pay lower wages, while forcing employees to rely on the generosity of customers to make a living wage.

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