Home > Uncategorized > Tipping, power, and the gig economy

Tipping, power, and the gig economy

August 27, 2015

Power is the opposite of dependency. I learned this definition from Adam Reich when he came to talk to my Occupy Summer School students this summer about sociology and the OurWalmart struggle.

It’s useful and convincing: you have power over someone if they are dependent on you.

So it makes sense that systems of tipping gives us power as consumers. Waiters, or other service people, are dependent on us for tips, which are often a large part of their overall salaries, so we have power over them.

In fact, it gives us a kick, a real but short-lived kind of status in service situations. We get to temporarily play the part of the “little lord.” Some people exploit this role, demanding too much, asking for special favors, and enjoying having someone do our bidding. Others are over-sensitive to slights; if they feel like their status is being questioned at any level, they switch from little lords to little tyrants, demanding attention and extra work from their waiters. We’ve all seen this.

When you ask an American, we like our tipping systems, and we don’t want to give them up, even though it leads to all kinds of financial problems for restaurant workers. Partly this is because, as part of the power relationship, if the waitstaff or serviceperson wants to get a good tip from us, they have to be nice to us. They have to make us feel like they like us, and, a secondary requirement, that they like their job. Surly waiters are waiters who don’t depend on tips and who make us realize that being a waiter isn’t always such a great job. Not that this entire dynamic is obvious to us every time we enter into a tipper-tippee relationship, but it’s there, lurking.

So far nothing I’ve said is at all new. Tipping has been around for a while. But there is a new kind of service economy evolving, which I call “the gig economy,” but which tellingly has been described as “the sharing economy” by some.

So, if you hire an Uber or Lyft driver to drive you somewhere, the payment has become somewhat invisible, since it happens on your credit card via the app, and instead of tipping you rate your driver (although you can tip as well). in fact the “cashless and seamless” experience of being driven by an Uber driver is one of the selling points. “Hassle-free” is a commonly heard phrase around the gig economy.

But in terms of power dynamics, replacing tipping by rating doesn’t do much, since Uber drivers are entirely dependent on their overall rating to stay employed. And you might object because riders get rated as well, but let’s face it, the worst thing that could happen to a poorly rated rider is that he gets kicked off the app and has to use another rider app, but the worst thing that can happen to a driver with a bad rating is he could lose his job.

My fear is this: the invisibility of the transaction makes us as consumers even less aware of the power dynamics than we already are. We have gone from a transactional relationship, in a restaurant, to a inequitable faux-friendship. The marketing of the “sharing economy” doesn’t help:


Why is this a problem? Some of the most important lessons I teach my children is how to be grateful, polite, and non-tyrannical to people who are serving us, at a restaurant or wherever. It’s part of learning how to be an empathetic person, and a balancing out of one-on-one human interactions which I think is super important. I want them to know that service is not servitude, and that everyone is a person just trying to do their best. Of course, this goes for any kind of transactional service, not just the tipping kind.

However, the first step in extending gratitude to people who are extending us a service is to know when that transaction is occurring. If every bill is magically and invisibly settled, then my kids won’t even recognize that it existed, and instead of gratitude for help, they might just think the person they just interacted with really liked them. Another way for my kids to learn empathy is, of course, for them to have jobs in which they experience the other side of the transaction, and I hope they do have jobs like that, although it’s getting much harder to get such a job than it used to be.

Maybe I’m being an old fuddy-duddy here. After all, when I think about the future of work, I often come to the conclusion that sooner or later, once the robots are doing lots of the grunt work and hard labor, the rest of us will be more or less in service to each other. There will be teachers, and personal trainers, and personal assistants, and life coaches, and people who hang out with old people, and nannies, and so on. Every now and then society will support people who just think – although they too will provide service in the form of essays or research – or people who just have loads of cash and just entertain themselves all the time.

So, maybe it’s old-fashioned to want balance in each relationship; instead, we can enjoy the “friendly interactions” of servicing one person and then turning around and being serviced by someone else in another realm. Maybe someday I’ll be an Uber driver, smiling at my rider, then I’ll meet up with my personal trainer who is extremely nice to me. Maybe the seamlessness and cashlessness of each future transaction will free everyone up to talk about politics, and philosophy, and what have you, instead of haggling over the bill.

Or, and here’s my pessimistic side emerging, or maybe we’re watering down the appearance of power relationships because we have redefined the word “innovation” as “ways to make rich peoples lives easier” and we call something a “disruption” if a bunch of people’s job security is weakened and they need to rely on rating systems – and need to claim to like their job and their customers – in order to scrape by.

What do you think? What are the consequences of the gig economy on power dynamics between people?

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. August 27, 2015 at 8:09 am

    Not a fan of tipping. How many people tip 7%? It’s usually a fuzzy binary. Either 0 or $0,01 to show displeasure, or 15-20%. Not really a gauge of service. Plus, in a restaurant you are never sure that the tip goes to the intended person or that the person who cooked your excellent meal gets a portion of the tip.


    • August 28, 2015 at 5:53 pm

      I (rarely) do tip 5-7%. I also tip extra when we (say our kids) are a hassle. I generally tip as if the server as my table gets the whole tip, which I know isn’t quite right. The key problem is that the restaurant doesn’t tell me how the tip is shared, so I don’t know whether the people being tipped are also those responsible for whatever experience I’ve had.


  2. JSE
    August 27, 2015 at 8:25 am

    When I take a Lyft I always give the driver a 5-star rating, no matter what, even though obviously some drivers are better or some worse. I’m not willing to get a guy fired.


    • August 28, 2015 at 6:05 pm

      I once spent a frightening taxi ride from O’Hare to Evanston with a driver who used one hand to hold his mobile phone to his ear, and often his other hand for other things, leaving no hands for the steering wheel. I would have loved to be able to give him a low rating, and that an accumulation of such ratings would have caused him to be fired.


  3. Guest2
    August 27, 2015 at 9:00 am

    Your conclusion echoes Proudhon, the one Marx so vigorously attacked — no, social stratification will not disappear once robots are doing the “grunt work” — those owning the robots will have control over the rest of us, hierarchically concentrating wealth and power.


  4. Dan L
    August 27, 2015 at 10:00 am

    For some reason, this post made me think of nannies as the most extreme example of what you’re talking about. Small children can’t know (and shouldn’t know) that the person caring for them has a mostly transactional relationship with them.


    • KathH
      August 27, 2015 at 10:29 am

      Not sure at what point small children do understand that the nanny or the childcare worker or the babysitter gets paid. But by the same token, my assistant at work gets paid to help me get my work done (and sure, the work of the company done), yet we have an ongoing personal exchange, a relationship, and (if things go well) enjoyment of each other’s company. It’s the transitory service relationships that are more fraught.


      • August 27, 2015 at 10:36 am

        Yes I agree that long-term relationships are very different. I should have been more specific in my post.


  5. Rebecca R
    August 27, 2015 at 10:17 am

    An interesting data point to include here might be the experience of many psychiatrists, particularly in private practice. The payment transaction is explicit as a component of the professional relationship between psychiatrist and patient; the patient is not permitted to feel as though the relationship has become personal out of liking.


  6. August 27, 2015 at 10:39 am

    I found this guy (http://www.tippingresearch.com/index.html) who seems to have devoted his life to researching issues related to tipping. I particularly liked this short note: http://www.tippingresearch.com/uploads/Seven_ways.pdf

    For me, one of the punchlines is that, like most other consumer decisions, actual power lies with those who are able to think statistically and operate systematically (e.g., businesses, occasionally employees, rarely customers). Who among us would write or read a study for diners titled “7 ways to get the best service from your waitperson?”

    Also, notice the point about casual touch: the customers didn’t even remember/realize that they were touched!

    It seems that some of Lynn’s research supports your claim about power perceptions in driving tipping culture. That surprised me because my own experience of tipping is awkwardness and uncertainty, definitely not a feeling of power.

    I don’t think hiding the payment process or structure meaningfully changes the power dynamic, at least not shifting it toward the customer. Instead, I think it has 2 effects:
    (1) biases us to pay more (studies show we pay more when it is convenient to do so and/or when the payment is less tangible and/or when the payment time is removed from the time of deciding to consume)
    (2) opens up the opportunity for the provider to sell friendship (actually, the simulation of friendship) in addition or instead of the core product. This, again, is something that biases up the amount paid and also makes the consumer less demanding of the provider, not more demanding.


  7. EMB
    August 27, 2015 at 11:06 am

    Another major problem with tipping is that the largest factor in determining each tip actually has nothing to do with the quality of service: it’s how much that customer customarily tips. It’s not an issue that I’d necessarily expect to transfer to ratings, i.e. people who tip 7% for good service probably won’t also 3-star-rate for good service.


  8. KKT
    August 27, 2015 at 12:36 pm

    One of the biggest problems with “tipping” (which is not really tipping; tipping is an extra gift in addition to the regular wages, not the wages itself. Imagine what it would be like if the line on the bill said “wages,” but I digress) is that we humans are notoriously poor at judging good vs. bad. We overreact to percieved bad and underreact to percieved good. For exhibit A, please see the stock market. The same sort of unconscious bias applies to rating systems.


  9. dotkaye
    August 27, 2015 at 12:54 pm

    the rich do what they can, the poor suffer what they must.. same old power dynamic: except we now have many more poor as they fall out of the vanishing middle class.

    The professionally friendly classes traditionally included folks like stockbrokers, realtors, life insurance salesmen, and so on. In the gig economy we all have to be professionally friendly, though the rich will as usual take it as their due and imagine themselves to be tremendously likeable people.

    I look forward to this book,


  10. mk
    August 28, 2015 at 9:06 am

    At the car wash, I tipped the guy who finished washing my car $10, he really appreciated it, but I think it would be better if he got a great wage from his employer instead.


  11. Gordon
    August 28, 2015 at 2:47 pm

    What a horrible vision of humanity – how depressing, if everything can be reduced to a set of power dynamics.


  12. August 29, 2015 at 8:12 am

    Tipping is a cultural artifact that has nothing to do with service. Imagine tipping nurses, bank tellers, city employees or policeman for ‘good service’ and it would be considered totally unethical, encouraging greater attention to you at the expense of others.
    Give a tip in food stalls in Asia away from tourist areas and you are often reminded that you left change on the table. Tip is not expected and often, not cool.


    • August 29, 2015 at 8:13 am

      I mean, all you’re saying is that it’s common practice in some places and not others. If you left an american restaurant and *didn’t* tip, that would be even uncooler.


  13. kpedro88
    August 29, 2015 at 3:36 pm

    If you haven’t already seen it, you might enjoy this series of blog posts: http://jayporter.com/dispatches/observations-from-a-tipless-restaurant-part-1-overview/


  14. noneya
    September 1, 2015 at 4:39 pm

    My personal experience with tipping is one of awkwardness, having to google “am I supposed to tip profession X in country Y, and if so how much”, and wanting to get over with it asap, and not one of power or any sort of control over the situation/service.

    This makes Uber a significantly better service for me if all else is equal. It also is one of the primary reasons I will refuse any kind of bellhop service at the hotels – I may well be willing to pay a fixed cost for it, but not one that involves a weird an awkward interaction, where I have to worry about displeasing a fellow human.


  1. September 1, 2015 at 12:30 pm
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