Tip Jars and Coffee Shops

What exactly is the tip jar at the local coffee place supposed to recognize, excellent cash register operation, and at Starbucks is it for excellent button pushing? How about the car wash, am I supposed to drop a dollar in the tip box because they dried my car really well… how about when they do a crappy job, should I pluck a dollar out of the tip box as a penalty?

We must be the only economy that holds the notion that people should be tipped for doing ordinary work in an ordinary fashion, which is in sharp contrast to how tipping originated in England a few hundred years ago, which was to inspire “service promptitude”. But this isn’t entirely true because we don’t always tip for ordinary work done really well, like my UPS driver who always has a smile on his face and a hustle in his step (I do give him a pretty nice gift at Christmas, along with the garbage crew and the Fedex guy).

In America tipping is a phenomena of the last 100 years and at one time it was frowned upon by workers who considered themselves employees and not servants; American attitudes to tipping in its earliest days went as far as calling the practice “un-American” and “undemocratic”. In many parts of the world this is still the case, which only serves to confuse travelers unsure of when and how much to tip but here in the U.S. the practice is so firmly ensconced that it represents a parallel economy unto itself with restaurant tips alone hitting $30 billion per year.

Are tips jars in coffee shops a form of voluntary price increase that reflects our appreciation that workers are not paid adequately? If so why not just raise  prices across the board and do away with the tip jar, but more likely the tip jar represents a calculated effort to manipulate the average persons aversion to going against a social norm.

I’m not dismissing the notion that fast and friendly service should be encouraged but isn’t that something everyone in retail should strive to deliver irrespective of whether or not they are being tipped for it? I am a believer in restaurant and service industry tipping, being a consistent 20% tipper at restaurants even when the service is only average and the lady that cuts my hair gets a 100% tip (I just double what she charges me because I’m really happy with the way she cuts my hair and how nice she is when doing it). However, the car wash… not after the job they did this morning.