Rhyme and Reason
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Rhyme and Reason

How to find the pulse of a country from the way it tips

INDIA 2008

I order a dosa and a pav bhaji at a local fast-food joint in Mumbai. Several repeat orders of pavs and Thums Ups later, the server comes in with the cheque, mukhwas, and ready cash for change. The bill is Rs 230. I round it off to Rs 250 and leave. The server picks up the twenty rupees note, touches it to his forehead, and slips it inside his shirt pocket. I feel mildly powerful.

USA 2012

I am a 23-year-old immigrant, graduate student living in Boston. It is my birthday; my three friends and I go out for lunch to The Cheesecake Factory. Four entrees and a shared dessert later the bill is a square $95. I offer to treat my friends and sign off the check for $110 ($15 in the tip).

As we begin to walk away, the server, who up until then is a whiff of a candy store, chases me and says, “if you can’t tip at least 20% of the bill, you are not welcome the next time.”

His tone and demeanour tell me I had tipped him criminally low. My two American friends (who feel the need to defend me) jump in and say that while he was right, it wasn’t the right approach as it has ruined someone’s experience. He shrugs and walks off. I feel like I have failed on propriety.

JAPAN 2018

After having just moved to Tokyo from Texas, my friend had a better sense of Googling the etiquettes of tipping in Japan. The words “rude”, “inappropriate”, “insulting” popped up at the immediate. Tipping is offensive in Japan. My friend feels like she has landed in a “professional” country.

Three cultures. Three systems. And three distinct methods of receiving appreciation for service.

While in India one receives appreciation for the job with great gratitude, in the US it is a justified entitlement. In Japan, it is unnecessary as a job is a job and is treated as such.

In India, the power is held by the one being serviced, in the US it skews towards the one who is serving. However, in Japan, we find a balance. There is equality between the one serving and the one being served, and it seems like the system protects it too, unlike the other two nations.

If we use these national methods of tipping as clues, they actually speak about a specific need within the country.

In India, it is about feeling powerfulIn the USA, it is political correctness.In Japan, it is individuality & professional perfection..

Businesses largely build products and brands around this national need. They spin a story around it so that it makes sense to the natives. For instance, in India, businesses encourage taking control and put the consumers in a position of power. Think about some messaging Hutch’s “Wherever you go our network follows”, ICICI’S “Hum hai na”, or even in contemporary times when you receive an email thanking you for your patronage. The angle is mostly service — making sure the customer is king.

On the other hand, American businesses lean towards maintaining political correctness. The socialistic angle almost makes the customer feel bad for not thinking about the people who are serving them. For instance, the social responsibility driven marketing of Nike’s “Purpose Moves Us” or PepsiCo’s “People Matter” ensure that the power is well distributed. The one paying money is made to feel guilty — for not paying more.

Finally, Japanese brands often speak to an individual and their need for efficiency, performance and the next level of perfection. Think about PlayStation’s “playface” campaign that showcases the passion on one’s face when they are gaming. Or Yamaha’s “silent sessions” piano product that showcases its superior technology which can make a pianist forget the world and immerse in their own craft. It is all about achieving excellence.

That said, it isn’t necessary that every business, product idea or brand story surrounds these core sentiments, but there is a layer of relatability and resonance that comes naturally to a certain nation. And tipping for a service, my dear reader, is a micro-clue that can help a researcher like me identify this layer.

So when you travel to another country next, look at the small and big ways in which people are serviced and express gratuity — it might tell you a lot about the natives and the kinds of stories they relate to.

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I hear stories and show it as data. Sometimes, it’s the other way round. Writer/researcher/marketer | Health-tech puhsun