Do (we) Indians tip well?

Tipping is an integral part of the American service sector , no one knows why or how this came into existing but given the number of single hardworking mothers earning their living working as waitresses there is no doubt that one should tip a minimum of 15% to 20%. I have been raised in Mumbai under fairly middle class surroundings and I understand the value each dollar adds. I have been in the US for some time now and love eating out and I am a generous tipper, my wife always tells me that i overtip out of guilt that most of my countrymen don’t tip enough, if at all. I wanted to take an objective look at both sides of the coin and get to the bottom of this perception.

During my MBA in Philadelphia, i met Stacy who waited tables part time to cover some expenses and Zac who use to be a cab driver and had made his way to the B school. During one of our social interactions, i heard both these friends talk about Indians being sloppy tippers, irrespective of their economic stature and the quality of service being offered. As an Indian, i was embarrassed about the judgement being passed on the 1.2 billion of us, based on a few hundreds that have obviously done a poor job representing India abroad.

I was curios of various aspects of this particular conversation and some questions popped up in my head right away, the first being, how the hell did these guys know if their customers were Indians. One look around the bar and I kind of answered myself as i scanned the room i could pick out Indians or at least thats what i would like to think they were given our enthusiasm and four dimensional nods.

Stacy explained further that she had very limited hours per shift and she had to make sure that her tips generate enough return on investment. I have tried to brake down the problem based on cursory data i got from her then.

She worked 12 or so hours a week at a hip restaurant near the university campus, that means 3 shifts a week for 4 hours. Assuming that she had 5 tables per shift and each table is occupied by the same people for 45 minutes, she could be serving 25 tables in one shift. I have taken 15 minutes to compensate for no shows, or non peak times, cleaning time etc.


So based on her experience and a little bit of stereotyping, every time an Indian occupied here table, she assumed the worst and instead of taking a chance and giving that table the level of engagement that she would otherwise give other tables. She decided to spend the least effort on that particular table and use the same time for other tables to ensure prompt tips from them thus compensating for the perceived poor tip. Fair enough, I am sure she reached this conclusion based on her experience and thought that she was better off not expecting any good tips from tables occupied by South East asian (read Indians) and spending her time and energy on other tables. So if i plot a bell curve, my countrymen would be perceived to be in the areas to the left of the mean in the 2-2.5 times standard deviation!

Theoretically, what happens if all tables are occupied by Indians? I should ask her that, I am sure it would be her professional nightmare.

Now let me come to the other side of this argument, why can’t most of my countrymen tip?

Imagine growing up in a country with 1.2 billion people belonging to differing dialects, religions, values, beliefs and ethnicity. A country where the strength and the weakness is “diversity”.  Furthermorel if you are living in Mumbai, as i did, most of your day is spent in traveling to and fro, mingling between various stations, buses, autorickhaws and taxis. You often come across women bargaining with the street vendors negotiating the price of a pound of veggies etc. Culturally, negotiations is part of being Indian and one of the oldest and surest way for finding the best deal on the products. You learn to negotiate growing up, may it be the traffic cop trying to fine you for not carrying the relevant documents or the taxi driver you has rounded the fair to the nearest higher multiple of 10, negotiations is survival.

With this cultural exposure when one comes to the US it may take a while to get adjusted to the options, lifestyle the exchange rate. Today, 1 USD is ~63 Indian rupees, that means when I step into a 7-11 to buy bread i am spending at least 3 $ = 189 rupees for a bread that i would get for 20-30 rupees all this happening while you still have student loan at the back of your mind (the interest rates for the loan typically taken from an Indian bank, is around 12-13%). Amidst this chaotic when you go to a restaurant, the tip is a nail in the coffin. So that does to some extent explain the Bell curve behavior.

All this is true, so far as you are a student who is struggling with student loans and living expenses and securing a job with a company ready to sponsor your visa. However, once you start earning, generous tipping should be practiced. The shift from the earlier mindset to a post job mindset takes a while too and for some this mental transition doesn’t happen at all and hence the “minimal tipping” syndrome.

Alternatively, the human behavior aspect on could be fueling the self fulfilling prophecy that Indians don’t tip, as even if someone wants to tip the lack of service might rub him the wrong way and he may not tip at all .

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