Zadie Smith on Tipping

"I don’t think any nation should elevate service to the status of culture."

zadie_tipping

The recent New Yorker Food Issue is chock full of great stories to dig your teeth into—Lauren Collins on the quest to eat the world’s hottest chilies, Rebecca Mead on the hyper-competitive Greek yogurt industry, Julie Kramer on avant-garde Italian chef Massimo Bottura—but one of the most fun parts is a series of personal essays about take-out food, filed by writers like Donald Antrim and Gabrielle Hamilton.

Zadie Smith’s essay, “Take It or Leave It,” is particularly interesting in light of the ongoing debate about tipping in this country—namely, whether it should be abolished all together. Smith explains the bemusement with which Brits view the practice, explaining how too much time spent Stateside has caused her to tip back home, winning her nothing but strange looks (and certainly not any friendlier service).

Most tellingly, her argument seems less rooted in the ideas of fairness and living wages that drives the conversation here, and more in the inherent value of the service industry to society. On this matter, Smith is the anti-Danny Meyer—she just wants her coffee, thanksverymuch, no smile necessary:

I’m not going to complain about Britain’s “lack of a service culture”—it’s one of the things I cherish about the place. I don’t think any nation should elevate service to the status of culture. At best, it’s a practicality, to be enacted politely and decently by both parties, but no one should be asked to pretend that the intimate satisfaction of her existence is servicing you, the “guest,” with a shrimp sandwich wrapped in plastic. If the choice is between the antic all-singing, all-dancing employees in New York’s Astor Place Pret-A-Manger and the stony-faced contempt of just about everybody behind a food counter in London (including all the Prets), I wholeheartedly opt for the latter. We are subject to enough delusions in this life without adding to them the belief that the girl with the name tag is secretly in love with us.

Clearly, there are some key cultural differences here—in Britain, delivery is still generally limited to Chinese takeaway and pizza, whereas in the U.S. you can press a few buttons on your computer and “a boy will bring a single burrito to your door”—but Smith still offers an alternative take on the whole service-industry kerfuffle. Namely: Life already blows, and paying people to pretend to be nice to us isn’t going to change that.

Real talk?

[via New Yorker]

RELATED: #NewRules: The Complete Guide to Tipping in 2013

RELATED: The 20 Most Annoying Things Servers Do at Restaurants

  • gorelickingood

    I’ll take fake cheer over stony-face contempt.

Newsletter

Feed your inbox.

Subscribe