The Great Tipping Debate

Jun 12 , 2021
By Kidist Yidnekachew

When I decided to have lunch with an old friend in a relatively modest restaurant, I had no idea that the topic of tipping would come up. The meal was good and the service close to satisfactory. When the time to pay came, we both argued over picking up the bill as tradition dictates – friends and relatives are supposed to haggle over who gets to pay for the meal. In the end, she won the contest to pay after I finally gave up and let her.

Then, she asked me if I had change to give to the waiter. Unfortunately, I did not. The change the waiter had brought was a 50 Br note. She did not want to give him that much but did not want to leave without giving a tip. She also thought that the forgotten two Birr fare change I uncovered in my bag was too little. She said it was better not to tip at all than do as such so poorly.

She does have a point. If it were only tea and nothing else, a two Birr tip could be acceptable. Add meals and drinks that fill the table and anything below five Birr could be offensive.

But the impasse at our table that day was not being broken, until we asked the waiter for change to the 50 Br. We ended up leaving him 10 Br. The conversation did not end there. We argued whether or not it was mandatory to leave the waiter a tip.

“We could have just thanked him for his service and left,” I added.

She said that was taboo – tipping should come as a compulsory act under moral rules. It is a view left to the principles of every other single person.

Some like to “make it rain,” while others are a bit reserved when it comes to tipping. It is not always a matter of who is rich and who is not because there are people with money that are not generous tippers; they are considered stingy. On the flip side, some people are not even rich, and yet they tip generously.

Partly, the difference in opinion depends more on economic circumstances that go on to inform culture. In countries such as the United States, federal law actually allows employers to pay below the minimum wage as ‘tipped workers’ are considered to get adequate compensation from the gratuity they receive. Under such circumstances, not tipping someone well could mean the difference between that waiter being able to afford rent or not.

There are no such conceptions in Ethiopia, where tips are considered merely a kind gesture and not a substitute for the income waiters make from monthly wages. In countries such as Japan, tipping in a restaurant could be downright offensive.

I am pro-tipping, but I do not think tipping should come as a compulsory act. One should not be treated less because they did not tip. For whoever has money to spend, please tip generously, but those of us who do not should not be frowned upon when we fail to leave a fat gratuity.

I used to feel uncomfortable when I could not tip and often left quietly to avoid looking at the waiter’s face, but then I realised my obligation was paying the bills and did not include giving a tip. Other times the need to tip, even when I had no money, was because I did not want to be considered either stingy or rude.

No doubt, waiters do not have it easy. It is a lot of time spent on their feet running around to take orders. Many have to deal with disgruntled customers, not to mention being forced to laugh at the jokes of men who feel the need to hit on every other waitress. For all of this, they get paid peanuts.

However, employers also abuse the system by pretending that tipped workers somehow get compensated for the low salaries they prefer to pay them. When restaurants make fortunes but fail to pay their staff the amount they deserve, it makes them dependent ever more on tips, and complicates life for me and my friend who could not just find change in our pockets.

PUBLISHED ON Jun 12,2021 [ VOL 22 , NO 1102]

Kidist Yidnekachew is interested in art, human nature and behaviour. She has studied psychology, journalism and communications and can be reached at (

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