Tipping?? There’s no tipping in China! Or is there?

Posted in Barbershop at 5:09 pm by Benjamin Ross

The other day I took one of my students to Meng’s barbershop for a haircut.  As my student was getting washed up, I was discussing the service industry with Kang, one of Meng’s barber colleagues.  He asked me a question I get asked a lot:

“What is the biggest difference between cutting hair in the US and cutting hair in China?”

Depending on what pops into my mind first, I have four or five different ways to answer this question.  I opted for one of the simpler ones.  “Tips.”

Tipping in China, generally speaking, does not exist  Whether you are dining in a restaurant, ordering a beer, being massaged, riding a taxi, having furniture delivered, or choosing a wine pairing for your lobster, the price listed is the price you pay.  Adding an extra bit of cash on top, no matter big or small, is just…well….awkward.  If anything, it may even be construed as a bribe.  Instead, many service industry workers are paid a “提成,” a commission on services performed.  In barbershops, this usually ranges between around 30 and 40% of the cost paid by the customer.

When Kang asked me how tipping works in an American barbershop, I replied “Say a haircut is $15.  You might give your barber anywhere from $17 to $20 and tell him to keep the change.  Not giving a tip would indicate that you were unsatisfied.”

This is when things got a little weird.  Kang pointed over to my student, who was now seated in the barber chair as Meng was examining his head, and jokingly said, “Hey, tell your student to give Meng a tip.”  Immediately, Meng scowled at Kang and gave him a hand gesture indicating “Shut the F up!”

A little background/disclosure:  I’ve been enlisting the help of my students as props in my ethnography.  Of our 15 students from UChicago, the majority have limited Chinese skills.  I’ve been offering to escort them to local barbershops as needed, and act as their interpreter.  This serves the symbiotic purpose of 1) providing me with excuses to hang out in barbershops and 2) dramatically increases the chance of students procuring decent haircuts.  Lately I’ve been directing many of my students to Meng.  He’s a talkative friendly guy who has been sharing with me many details about the industry and the life of migrants.  He also has gives a damn good Western-style haircut.

Even though Kang was joking when he suggested I tell my student to tip Meng, the proposition was awkward enough that Meng felt threatened.  What he was probably thinking but not saying out loud was “Don’t offend this American guy.  He’s been bringing me a solid flow of new customers.  I got a good thing going on here.  Don’t screw it up!”  And in a commission-based system, more customers requesting his services means more take-home pay for Meng.

When the dust settled and Meng was engrossed in my student’s new hairdo, I asked Kang about tipping in China, even though I assumed I knew what the answer would be.  His reply surprised me.

“We actually get tipped quite a bit here, from foreigners.”

I was shocked!  Tipping?  In China?  “No tipping” is usually the first thing listed on every “A Westerner’s Guide to China” blog post or travel book.  It’s right up there with “Never accept a business card with only one hand” and “Don’t leave your chopsticks upright in your rice bowl.”  You just don’t do it.

Now I should point out that Meng’s barbershop is located within walking distance of Renmin University where many foreign students reside.  In one month, Meng probably cuts more foreigners’ hair than a Fuzhou barber would in a lifetime.  Even so, the tipping still struck me as odd.  I asked Kang to clarify.

“Yeah, well you know Chinese people don’t tip, but we get a decent number of foreigners coming in here, mostly students from Renmin, and I’d say more often than not, they tip.  It’s like bonus money for us, so why not?” he said with a grin.

Personally, I’m not a fan of tipping, with the possible exception of a restaurant context.  As a matter of principle, I’ve always felt paying employees’ fair wages should be the responsibility of the business owner, not the moral imperative of the customer.  And with a fair commission system in place, workers are both incentivized and rewarded for a job well done.  In my country (the US) tipping has become such an institution that it is no longer even a reflection of the service performed, but simply a token ritual, completely divorced from its original purpose.

But could this be indicative of an emerging trend in the Chinese service industry?  If so, what would be the impetus for an emerging culture of tipping in the Middle Kingdom?  Social scientists frequently debate the influence of exogenous factors (i.e. culture imported from abroad) versus shocks from within (rising costs of living) in their explanations of social phenomena.  If I had to guess, I don’t see the institution of tipping gaining traction anytime soon in China.  But I can envision how it could begin to stick in large markets (i.e. Beijing, Shanghai) with their high concentrations of Western clientele…and presumably spread outward from there.

1 Comment »

  1. James Canada said,

    May 8, 2014 at 9:15 pm

    I have to admit, I have occasionally tipped in China. Once in a Blue Moon, the service is over and beyond what I’m expecting, and I can tell the person working really takes pride in what they do, which is something I find to be quite rare in China. As a result I feel a little bit of extra cash to show my appreciation isn’t too awkward, and hopefully reinforces the attitude of providing good service. Also when I know my salary is anywhere from 15 to 25 times that of the person working I feel a little obligated to share the wealth. Although speaking as a North American, I know this is a very slippery slope.

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