Tipping Point

I am rather amused to hear opinions that argue that tipping to waiters is an act of generosity, and a barometer for how we treat those less fortunate than we are.

From a first order economic perspective, tipping shouldn’t matter. What you are willing to pay at the restaurant table depends on the economics of dining, and what the restaurateur pays his staff depends on the vagaries of the labour market.

 An economist would point out that a tip comes out of your pocket as much as the rest of the  bill does, and if you are in a society where a 15% or 20% tip is customary, you will factor that into your dining decisions. In other words, when deciding whether to eat out or not, or when deciding whether to eat at a particular place or not, you should mentally translate an expected bill of Rs1,000 to Rs1,200 ( assuming a 20% tip) and decide on that basis.

 Likewise, when a waiter’s salary is negotiated, the tips that he can expect must surely be taken into account. How can it not be? A restaurateur  will certainly tell a candidate for the post of waiter: “Look, your official salary is X, but you can expect tips of Y per month, so your take home is actually X+Y.”

 So, at first glance, it must seem that the custom of tipping should make no difference. If there were to exist two cities that were identical in all respects except  that Stingy City has a culture that tips 5% and Generous City has a culture that tips 20%, the menu prices and waiter salaries in the two cities must adjust themselves so that diners pay out approximately the same amount to the restaurant and the waiters take home around the same amount in both cities.

 As I have taken care to mention, all this is the first order perspective. What about when we look more closely? This is where things get a little more interesting.

 Suppose that you have a culture where tipping up to 20%  is customary, but any tip in the range of 0 to 20 is acceptable, depending on how much you think you can afford, and how much you liked the service. What will happen then?

 First, from the perspective of economics, this increases flexibility, which is a good thing. One of the biggest problems that economies face is that wages and prices are rigid. Actually, it is worse than that – wages are rigid downwards (i.e. it is difficult to reduce wages) while prices aren’t very rigid, but to the extent that they are, they are rigid upwards – i.e. it is difficult to raise prices. This makes it difficult for economies to get out of a downturn, because you can’t reduce people’s salaries when faced with reducing profits. So you hold on to employees, and when you can’t do that, you lay them off (or if labour laws make it difficult to do even that, you struggle for a bit and close down the company)

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Why Don’t Indians Leave Voicemails?

When Vodafone (then Hutch, or was it Orange?) offered voicemail on my cellphone, I immediately got it activated. I hoped to move to a system where I never ever pick up phone calls from unknown numbers. If I heard a voicemail I was interested in, I would call back. Unfortunately, it turned out that people rarely left voice messages.

Those who were calling from numbers known to me had no reason to leave voicemails. Obviously, telemarketers wouldn’t dare to leave a messagge, But even someone calling from an unknown number, but had reason to believe that I would want to call back, wouldn’t leave a message. The only people who did leave messages were people who had gotten into the habit of leaving them, typically by interacting with phoreners.  This means that I couldn’t put in place the system I wanted. I had to call back every number.

I realize that we don’t leave messages because we have not developed a culture of leaving messages. Unless you are used to leaving messages, when an voice comes up asking you to leave a message, composing a crisp message stating your name and a number to call back on is a struggle. The most obvious reason why we didn’t develop such a culture is that we had no occasion to. Till the late 80s, even getting a phone was a struggle; buying a separate answering machine would have been a luxury. After cellphones and caller ids became common, a missed call is sufficient indication of who called; and usually we know why they called and have an idea whether to call back. In a sense, this is one of the areas where we have adopted a more advanced technology, bypassing the need for an intermediate technology.

I am guessing that even apart from the above reason, there would have been other reasons why Indians would not have adopted the answering machine. First, somehow, it seems rude to have others announce why they are calling. Second there would have been no reason to have an answering machine because there would always be someone at home. Third, why call back and incur the cost, when you can just answer the phone and talk to the other person for free?  Fourth, when you have a multiple language situation, in which language would you want your greeting to be? This barrier can be significant. If you have an English greeting and someone who doesn’t know English calls you, they will get confused and hang up, and this will retard the adoption of the answering machine. (True story: I had told my mother that if she left a message, I would get an SMS and call her back. Her first few messages were in English, though I speak Kannada with her. It turned out that she thought that the system actually transcribed the message and sent it as an SMS, and she reasoned that it wouldn’t be able to do it for Kannada messages.)

Still, I wish we’d adopted the culture of leaving voice messages. It seems much more respectful of people’s time and priorities.

Taboos Are Funny Things

There is a performing form of art called Yakshagana, prevalent in coastal Karnataka. In Yakshagana, women’s roles, called “stree vesha”, are usually performed by men. While this happens to be true for many folk art forms in India (and historically, it used to be true of operas and dramas even in the West), you have not really seen a man perform a woman’s role till you have seen it in a Yakshagana performance.

It used to be that Yakshagana was performed by professional troupes. A hundred years back, it used to be that women performing in professional troupes were reputed to be whores – and a reputation like this tends to be self-fulfilling. If the profession’s reputation is that only whores will work in it, only the kind of women who don’t mind that reputation will work in that profession. Yakshagana, unlike the Tamasha of Maharashtra, could not live with such a reputation, because it primarily depicted mythological themes and depended heavily on patronage from temples. Yakshagana performers carried low status, but not so low a status, if you get what I mean.

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