Why South Koreans reject tipping for service - Hindustan Times
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Why South Koreans reject tipping for service

By | Posted by Parmita Uniyal
Sep 30, 2023 12:00 PM IST

Tipping in South Korea is not customary. Many say the idea of tipping is unfair and even demeaning to the recipient.

A jar on the counter of a popular bagel shop in Seoul triggered a nationwide debate over the concept of tipping for service in South Korea, with most people opposed to gratuities becoming the norm. Critics say tipping could cause "confusion in Korean society," and is not needed because the nation has a basic wage that is sufficiently high. Some are of the opinion tipping can even be considered insulting as it suggests a consumer considers the worker to be in need of charity.

Many South Koreans are uncomfortable with tipping (Janusz Pieńkowski/PantherMedia/IMAGO)
Many South Koreans are uncomfortable with tipping (Janusz Pieńkowski/PantherMedia/IMAGO)

The South Korean perspective is in contrast to the United States, where the minimum wage for service sector jobs in many states factors in workers receiving as much as 20% of their total income from tips. Even in Europe, workers in cafes and restaurants are grateful for a little extra on top.

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As in many countries without a tradition of tipping, many South Koreans struggle to know just how much to leave as a gratuity when they travel overseas. Most tend to leave too much for fear of causing offence if they leave too little. Now the issue is being forced upon them at home.

Social media backlash toward tipping

The South Korean tipping debate started in July, when a photo of the tip jar alongside the cash register in a Seoul bagel shop went viral on social media. Labelled "tip box" and stuffed with bank notes, the original Tweet attracted 3.3 million views and 15,000 shares in three days, The Korea Herald newspaper reported.

In response, the operator of the cafe said it had introduced a tip jar after foreign customers asked where they should leave their gratuities, but the reaction was overwhelmingly negative.

One comment suggested that the store was attempting to avoid paying taxes, while the newspaper reported another as saying, "Now, in addition to delivery fees and takeout fees, we are expected to tip as well?"

The debate was stoked later in July when the Kakao T taxi hailing app introduced a function that permits a passenger to tip the driver between 1,000 won (€0.70) and 2,000 won (€1.40) if they felt they had received good service.

The company defended its decision on the grounds that it is entirely up to the customer and that it would encourage drivers to improve their service, but others feared it will be replicated elsewhere and start the nation on a path towards "tipflation."

"I recently visited a Turkish restaurant near my workplace and they had a tip jar in front of the cashier's counter, filled with money," said Kim Hyun-jung, 46, a part-time teacher who lives in Seoul. "It was interesting to see the tip jar, and it felt unusual to see customers putting money in it," she told DW.

Tipping 'disrespectful' in South Korea?

Hinting at her sense of unease, Kim said, "giving money to someone might make you feel like you see that person as someone who doesn't have money. It can feel empathetic, and that person might think you're pitying them, or they could even feel like you're disrespecting them."

Another concern is that tipping could be an excuse for "gapjil," the Korean word for exploitation of workers, as employers can claim that as their staff are receiving tips they no longer have to be as generous with wages, even though the minimum wage is protected by law.

Park Yeong-seon, an economics student at Seoul Women's University, is strongly opposed to tipping becoming commonplace in South Korea and is confident that it will never catch on. She added that widespread adoption of a "tipping culture" would "destroy Korean culture and the economy."

"Koreans are mostly other-oriented and often compare themselves with others," she told DW. "They hate it when others look down on them. I used to work part-time at a butcher shop and received tips from older men. Those tips … made me feel bad because I felt like I was getting sympathy."

Koreans consider fairness to be an important value, she added, meaning that someone received a fair wage for a fair day's work, which could become distorted if tipping becomes commonplace as earnings would fluctuate.

Park believes that South Korea's culture of "jung," or simply belonging, means that regular customers to a restaurant receive free side dishes with no questions asked.

Falling incomes, rising costs

Falling consumer spending power among ordinary people, and a desire among some shops to be more "international," has added to the recent debate over tipping, said David Tizzard, an assistant professor of education at Seoul Women's University and a columnist for a Korean daily focusing on social affairs.

"Many workers feel like they are not getting paid enough," he told DW. "'Lunch-flation' is a widely discussed topic and a struggle for many office workers as inflation continues while wages seem to stagnate."

"Many coffee shops or bakeries looking to differentiate themselves or provide a global flavor will decorate themselves with foreign goods and aesthetics as a means of seeming sophisticated," he added. "The tip jar is probably half-aesthetic, half-culture but embraced by those trying to give people a foreign feeling while still in the country," he said.

And with the concept being widely dismissed —regardless of age, gender or employment background —Tizzard believes tipping will be a passing fad.

"The cultural and historical foundations of the country are different from the West, so while it will incorporate baseball, hip-hop, hot dogs, and crop tops, tipping is something that will likely remain a forever foreign culture," he said.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn

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