Observations From a Tipless Restaurant, Part 5: Sex, Power and Tips

This is part 5 of a series detailing what I learned from operating our farm-to-table flagship restaurant, the Linkery, as a “no-tipping” restaurant that instead charged a fixed percentage for service, from 2006 to 2013. We also operated a sister restaurant, El Take It Easy, that followed the traditional tipping model, allowing for a fairly direct comparison. Click here to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

“This isn’t about money,” the man would say.

He’d be the one person in a thousand, or in ten thousand, who’d get angry about our fixed service charge. Angry about his lack of control over the price, angry about not being the final arbiter of our service. You could count on him being male, at least when we’re talking about public scenes. (I’ve heard of a few women who got pretty mad about it in private.)

And his go-to line was so predictable, we would wait for it, anticipate it. “I always tip way more than twenty percent!”

If that was the case, why were these guys so mad about paying only 18%, far less than they otherwise would? What was it about not choosing the amount they tipped, that infuriated them, even when they were getting a discount?

It had to be at least partially about lack of control. Or, more accurately, lack of imagined control. This guy thought that, in a tipped environment, his server would perform better in order to get more of his money. That idea is false, as shown both by repeated studies and common sense, but that was irrelevant. His anger could not be redeemed by mere facts.

Then what was this rage so primal that no exposure to reality could relieve it?

As this scenario presented itself through the years, its details started to hint at the anger’s wellspring. In the US, over 70% of restaurant servers are female, most of them under 30 — a statistic that well described our service team. And the person who was pissed he couldn’t tip them would be male, I’d guess usually between 35 and 55.

I began to notice that his hostility was not the frustration of a consumer who’d paid for a faulty product — we would occasionally encounter that kind of frustration, and this was different. No, this anger was much more evocative of a man betrayed. As we watched the scene repeat, I started to draw assocations with certain cultural archetypes — the rage of a man who finds out he’s been cuckolded, or the man whose lover tells him she’s always faked her orgasms. In time I drew the conclusion that our tipping ritual is only nominally a business arrangement. Under the surface, it is much more a convention about sex and power.

At this point I have to admit some uncomfortable truths. Before we switched to a non-tipping system, I was pretty much like these guys. Perhaps that just made me like most guys. I like to think I was generally nice to people, and I’m sure I always tipped way more than twenty percent. But I, like many males, loved the rush of having my needs attended to by young, attractive, female servers. And there was always the promise that something special might happen, and one of these icons of sexual fulfillment would succumb to my charms. It went without saying that my fat wallet and generosity would be key assets in such an conquest.

I don’t think I was unusual in harboring such thoughts. The meme of sleeping with our waitress is important to Americans. Like all our treasured myths, it’s embedded in our popular culture. Three examples come to my mind in a matter of seconds:

My point here, like Edwin Decker’s, is that we Americans — at the very least heterosexual American men — spend a fair amount of time thinking about having sex with waitresses. (I’ll leave as a bonus item The Waitresses, an 80’s band from Ohio with a pouty frontwoman who sang I Know What Boys Like.)

And in a context where we expect waitresses to both work for our tips and be objects of sexual attraction, their work and their sex appeal become two sides of the same coin. In the dining room, we assume that our server looks sexy because she wants to make more money from the men who are tipping her.

Even after I became an employer of professional servers, I attributed the sexiness of our tipped female employees to their desire to increase their income. Put simply, I blithely assumed that servers had the same basic motivations as exotic dancers. In those early days, our restaurant was perhaps primarily a place where young, smart, attractive people worked, and played. I figured the business of women looking good for money was the engine that drove the flirtatiousness in our dining room.

When we switched from taking tips to a flat service charge with no tipping allowed, I shrugged my shoulders a bit wistfully, assuming that the sex appeal for which we were known would become a thing of the past. That was OK with me — I enjoyed that part of what we did but it wasn’t the point of our restaurant, nor was it the reason I was in the industry. As long as our servers did a good job, it was fine if they decided to stop being “hot waitresses.”

Imagine my surprise when that didn’t happen.  Not only did the women who worked for us keep up their appearances, they, if anything, actually turned up the dial.

I wondered what was going on — my expectations were confounded.  However, it was clear that we were now the only restaurant in the US where, patently, if a female server chose to look sexy, it was most likely because she felt like looking sexy. If a server flirted with you, it was because she wanted to flirt with you. Not because she wanted your money; but because she was enjoying flirting with you.  It didn’t affect her night’s income at all.

This opened up a world of possibility. A place where both patron and worker, as peers and neighbors, could bring their whole selves literally to the table. Not just playing their roles as master and servant, but as real people exhibiting their sense of humor, their playfulness, and, being human, their sexuality.

I saw that, in a tipless environment our female servers had the potential to be perceived as whole persons. From that, it was easy to see that in a tipping environment, we push the job of waitressing into a realm that nestles alongside sex work; a realm where any sexuality the woman shows is assumed to be solely because she wants to get paid. The social construct is that this woman — be she a server, a dancer, or an escort — can never like sex but can only pretend to like sex for money. In this contract, any sexual expression in which she engages in is because she is, effectively, a prostitute.

But when attention-for-payment is removed, and the female server transforms from “sex worker lite” to a person whose own robust sexuality can now be acknowledged — this is now a moment of vulnerability for everyone involved. It’s a threat to the male patron who no longer has the prospect of withholding income to protect himself from rejection. It may be a scary moment for a female customer on a date, who now weirdly has a potential rival — not a marginalized servant — joining her at the table as perhaps more than a third wheel. It’s a moment ripe with opportunity for new connections, but that opportunity comes at the cost of everybody being exposed. And the feeling of being vulnerable is not necessarily what people are looking for when they dine out.

From what I saw, that scary moment lies at the heart of the fury arising in some of us, when the emotional shield of tipping is removed.

The next question, of why acknowledging female sexuality would be such a flash point for us, of course comprises a whole field of inquiry. I don’t think we need to arrive at an answer here; we can still see the relationship between that force and tipping culture. However, there is some research that I think relates to this question in an interesting way. I cite it here not to make an open-and-shut case, but instead with the idea that it might spur some interesting reflection and discussion.

We know from anthropologists that the context in which humans evolved was fairly steady for the last 200,000 years or so, up until the last four to ten thousand years, when a major change happened: the introduction of agriculture. Before agriculture, we had typically lived in roaming bands of 100-200 people, carrying only a few things with us. After agriculture, our societies became stationary, and that allowed us to own more things than we could carry — including land, animals, and, in some cases, other people. We started to value, and inherit, possessions. If you’ve read the book Ishmael, then you know this story, laid out as an elegant parable of “Takers” and “Leavers.”

Another book, Sex at Dawn, a 2010 nonfiction bestseller by researchers Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, details how human culture may have changed as we moved from being nomadic to agricultural. The book is fascinating, well-researched and too intricate to sum up in this blog post. However, relevant to our discussion is this: the authors make a compelling scientific case that, for most of our history, humans lived in polyandrous, matrilineal groups. By this, I mean the authors show that pre-agricultural women probably usually had sex with a lot of men. And that at least sometimes, salaciously enough, women had sex with a lot of men at more or less the same time, consecutively. (The colloqualism I’m dancing around here is “gangbang”.)

In our pre-agricultural past, it wasn’t really important who your father was, since there was nothing to inherit, and child-raising was a responsibility shared by the group. The very idea of paternity was a social construct that didn’t arise until men owned farms, and passed possessions to their children.

After agriculture, our sudden interest in knowing our paternity meant that female monogamy (technically, monandry) became, out of the blue, essential. Human culture had developed around female appetites, but now we had to denigrate anything that reminded us of women’s sexuality. Thus, in contemporary culture, women with strong sex drives are “hysterical”, “wanton”, “nymphomaniacs” or “whorish”. Parents agonize over their daughters dressing “like sluts”; boyfriends worry that their girlfriends are dressing too provocatively in bars.

As a culture, faced with this fear, we go on to develop roles for women where any display of their sexuality can be negated as being just another form of prostitution. Thus, the subtle, sneering undercurrent of the phrase working for tips.

To sum up: I’m proposing that tipping allows us to assign women a role where any sexuality they display can be attributed not to their desires but instead to their greed for money. In doing so, we both dehumanize and desexualize women, in large numbers. We do this to shield ourselves from the cultural memory of a time not too long ago, when virile women called the shots and nobody was too concerned if your wife was getting around. (Because she was.) (Maybe she still is.)

Tipping, as we use it in America, allows our culture perpetuate the meme that women aren’t themselves sexual, but only pretend to like sex in order to make money — because a woman who isn’t sexual would never cuckold her man.

I’ve come to believe that propping up this meme is the more important role of tipping; and the suggestion that tips insure better service is just a ruse, misdirection.

About the time this was all sinking in, I met some folks from the University of Guelph, near Toronto, who clued me into a whole world of research about the role of tipping in the workplace. Through them, I was exposed to new insights about how tipping also serves as a “workaround” to — or more properly, how it defeats — values we demand of employers and managers. In the next post, I’ll look at tipping through the lens of civil rights and social justice, and see how it’s plausible that courts or legislatures could make tip compensation illegal in the next decade or two.

Click here to proceed to Part 6.

Click here to read Part 1.
Click here to read Part 2.
Click here to read Part 3.
Click here to read Part 4.