Inside the grey zone of tipping in India

The table’s been wiped clean. The glasses refilled one last time. You’re sitting back in satisfaction. Just then, from the corner of your eye, you see the waiter bring out a slim, leather-bound folder. You sit up in attention. Because you know he’s brought out the bill. But it’s not paying the bill that’s making you anxious. It’s what follows.

The tip? Or rather, the decision to tip

Under the watchful gaze of the waiter, you try doing quick calculations with the bill. You grapple with the math, but also with years of social conditioning that’s taught you to both rations your money and be generous with it.

You try and remember how the food tasted, how good the service was and what the difference was between what you expected and what you were served up. You try hard to make a rational decision based on cues you’ve picked up throughout the evening. In the end, it’s too much. You put down an arbitrary amount of cash, and make a quick exit, in the fear that you’ve paid too much. Or too little.

Social contract. Class catharsis. An off-the-book economic transfer of excess money. Tipping is a chimera that no one’s been able to quite grasp.

“The modern construct of tipping in India comes from the British. In 17th and 18th century England, tipping was an extension of your ‘noblesse oblige’, where the aristocratic rich would press few coins into the hands of attendants and butlers,” says Kurush Dalal, a Mumbai-based archaeologist, and culinary anthropologist. Closer to our times, when people began frequenting restaurants, the practice of leaving a little change behind at the table became popular. It sowed the seed for how we’ve come to encounter tipping now.

Tipping Culture over the world

But as tipping cultures around the world have developed and aged, there is no clear indication of why tipping happens. Academics in the tip center of the world—the US—have tried to answer this question in a myriad ways. After all, every year, Americans spend a whopping $14 billion or more on tips alone.

here are research papers and surveys aplenty—historical, cultural, economic and behavioral—to decode this impulse to tip. People have hung around outside restaurants, interviewing patrons. They’ve run rigorous analyses. They’ve even written out complex theoretical formulae. But none have managed to piece together a complete picture.

Like the four blind men who could only describe different parts of an elephant, not the whole thing. Worse yet, they can’t even explain why there’s an elephant in the room, which is what tipping becomes whenever we’re faced with an expectant waiter/porter/parking attendant or just some old guy who helped with directions.

Decoded or not, the decision to tip (or no tip) does seem hardwired into our systems. So, in writing this article, I turned the lens inwards and decided to watch my own tipping behavior for a week.

A grocery delivery guy

I tipped my grocery delivery guy (Kirana store strictly, not Grofers). I tipped at a local eatery I frequent in my neighborhood. I did not tip my Starbucks server. I tipped reluctantly at a high-end bistro in the heart of central Delhi. I did not tip either my Uber driver or the litany of autorickshaw drivers who drove me to work every day. It was erratic, to say the least, and in practice not really connected to how a service was delivered. Or who was delivering it?

Suneeta Sodhi, an etiquette coach from Mumbai, tries to unpack this for me. “Tipping does lie in a cultural grey zone in India,” she says over the phone, adding, “what and who you pay is connected to you where you encounter the service.”

Sodhi is a go-to commentator on the culture of tipping in India. Till a few years ago, weekend papers from Mumbai would be rife with her advice to navigate the complex phenomenon. To smoothen her own relationship with tipping, Sodhi has crafted some personal thumb rules for Indian restaurants.

“10% is a thank you, 12% is a thank you very much, 15% is for excellent service and 20% means I’m coming back soon,” she says.


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