Why Americans Must Tip


Dear Akshaya,

Hold on a second Akshaya, before you move to America there is something I want to share with you. There is a social norm in South Asia that isn’t a norm in America. I know that you are a complete sweetheart and I don’t want cultural misunderstandings to let anyone else think otherwise. If they do, please chalk it up to life’s many lessons.

Americans and Indians view status rather differently. In India, due to a history of obvious caste distinctions, Indians still have in their behaviors status signals. These signals make it clear where one stands on the status ladder. I believe these signals are unconscious and are entirely normal within Indian society. The strongest of these signals is an Indian’s relative willingness to allow others to serve them. I’ve seen this with maids, store staff, and within families. Indians are comfortable with a level of interdependence that Americans are taught to believe is servile. This system works well for India, but when in Dallas do as the Dallios do.

But how do the Dallios do it? Put simply American society is the result of a revolt against the European feudal/caste system. The people who resettled the USA were disenfranchised Western European minority groups. Some of whom were indentured servants who disliked that institution. They designed a relatively more inclusive society. The next waves of immigrants were escaping the Eastern European feudal/caste system. In order for society to function Americans, eventually, grew to minimize the distinctions between the Western and Eastern immigrants. Concerning the first two waves of European immigrants, they constructed a society that was semi-consciously opposed to caste distinctions.


You can still hear echoes of the feudal system in a person’s last name. Baker, Smith, and Shoemaker. However, these names no longer indicate someone’s caste, the way names still carry weight in South Asia.


America was resettled with an independence ethos. The people who ventured west did so without bringing servants and were ethically against it. This spirit continues in American culture, and it contributed to why American society felt justified in supporting the claims of an exploited maid working for the Indian Embassy. America’s support of her was a major shock to Indian society. Although the actual decision to support the maid was probably a power-politics play, American society at large felt their government acted within its cultural norms. To India’s bewilderment, America felt obligated to it’s own cultural values to persist in the case despite the damage it did to Indo-American relations.


Although I painted a rosy picture of American society, one of the forces that shaped America into a status sensitive society is slavery and the lasting residue of that institution. America, despite its flowery ideals, instituted one of the world’s most savage caste systems. This system created an enormous status division. Even after slavery ended the divide hasn’t healed. In order for society to march onward, Americans are taught to believe that their society is nearing class-neutral. The general tone of American propaganda about the status divide is that rich people are just ordinary people who earned their wealth due to personal ingenuity. They aren’t above anyone in the eyes of God or the law. Discrimination is illegal and most laws are written, with the intention of, applying equally. In South Asia, corruption, a bi-product of survival, lets wealthy people get away with illegal works. Of course, in the USA wealthy people can avoid punishment, but the amount of corruption is not nearly on par. Due to the residual pain of American history, when confronted with a blatant status disparity Americans can get uncomfortable.


Here are just some examples, when an Indian goes shopping they may make a mess of the store and leave the mess because it is, “that guy’s job” to sort it out. The same can be said for leaving waste on a table after a fast-food meal. Indian shops tend to have a higher population of employees, who pass their idle time following a costumer and cleaning up after them. Now of course American shoppers will make a mess of a store as they shop, but unlike India were this is relatively tolerated, in America that shopper is being especially rude. It is even a bit rude to leave your trash on a table at MacDonald’s. Put simply the service industry in America is there to help, and the service industry in India is there to serve. That said Americans, especially those working in the service industry, could mistakenly view middle-class Indian behaviors and expectations as unintentionally rude.

Indians who can afford to move to Western countries often come from homes with maids. They have grown accustomed to having a lower status person serve them. Maid-culture is so prevalent that Indian homes are often built with maid quarters. Although some Americans do have maids it is seen as an extravagance. In American movies rich villains have scores of maids and servants (and no friends). When maids/servants are portrayed positively in the media (The Fresh Prince & Batman) they are introduced as a part of the family, like a distant relative. The most recent portrayal of maids, The Help, captured American society’s sympathy for hardworking maids and their villainous employers. It’s a little dangerous to use Hollywood as a window into American culture, but it can be useful.


Why Americans Tip


For the reasons mentioned above and countless more, America became a relatively status sensitive society. Servitude is culturally viewed as demeaning. Therefor in jobs where someone must be servile, Americans will give cash tips as an appreciation for the servile work. Since Canada has a slightly more inclusive society and wasn’t damaged by slavery, Canada doesn’t have the same emphasis on tips. This is why it is rude in America not to tip or to tip very little, because it leaves the servitude of the labor blatant.



TLDR: American society due to its ideals and its suffering floats on the thin illusion of being classless. This is expressed in a dislike for servile behavior. Indian society, doesn’t play games, it runs on the hard fact that some people are above others. Indian society is not as sensitive about servile behavior or relationships. When Indians show this cultural trait to Americans, it abuses American illusions and makes us a bit uncomfortable.

2 thoughts on “Why Americans Must Tip

  1. Interesting. Only one comment– people do tip 15-20% in Canada, on par with the USA. In fact, I have encountered more waiters and waitresses in Quebec that are rude when they believe they deserve a higher tip (despite poor service) or simply have not returned my change believing they earned it.

    In contrast to a separate, much lower wage for waiters and waitresses in the USA, Canadian waiters and waitresses enjoy full minimum wage plus the tips.

    1. I think Canadians are following an American trend in asking for tips. Especially because they get more money. It’s really hard to distinguish were Canadian and American culture separate. We both seem to like Justin Beiber

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