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America at the Tipping Point

Cultivating a spirit of gratitude is a necessary first step in restoring the ethos that once made America great.

I gave our postman a $20 Wawa gift card last week. (Only later did I find out that $20 is the legal limit for non-cash gifts to postal workers.) Let me explain why.

Of course, I always give the tips that have already been baked into industry pricing—for waitresses, barbers, professional movers. I also give those “voluntary” holiday gifts to what seems like every teacher or school employee my child so much as passed in the hall this fall.

But—if my experience as a millennial is anywhere near normative—tipping beyond these basics does not come naturally. Perhaps it’s because my generation was indoctrinated into the virtues of capitalism and ushered into adulthood during a recession. Perhaps it’s because we’re just more selfish than preceding generations. Or perhaps it’s that I’m just more selfish than everyone else, in which case, feel free to stop reading.

And look: It makes some sense. After all, we’ve got mortgages and children, bleaker prospects for a middle-class-life than our parents, and a runaway inflation problem that we show no signs of catching any time soon. Add to the mix a luxury like sending your kids to a private school to avoid the local public school that definitely “doesn’t teach critical race theory,” and there’s not much room for tipping.

When we do tip, we want some credit. Just look at Uber’s model. If you have any funds left after the hefty base fee, there’s an option to tip your driver. You don’t have to, mind you, but you’re a really great guy if you do. We want our tipping to be seen as an act of moral supererogation, a word that, ever since I graduated with a degree in philosophy, I’ve been trying to work into normal conversation. Basically, when we tip, we want to be recognized as going above and beyond.

I may be stretching the word “tip” a bit. Of course, tips can be stingy or generous—it’s not always whether you tip but how much you tip that counts. Perhaps “gift” would be a better word. After all, what I’ve described above falls into the broad category of “things we don’t have to do, but that probably distinguish healthy societies from unhealthy ones.”

It’s a shame how far we’ve fallen. Americans have long exuded a spirit of charity and voluntarism, as Alexis de Tocqueville described in Democracy in America. Vestiges of this disposition remain, as America consistently ranks as the most charitable nation on earth. But charitable giving is an imperfect proxy for this spirit, and while the individual givers who exemplify it are many, its influence on our culture writ large seems diminished. After all, charitable acts like slipping your grocer a $20 bill around the holidays are not captured in aggregative statistics.

Two recent pieces in the Wall Street Journal crystallize the distinction I intend to make. The first was a kind of “tips on tipping” article, explaining what manners and customs suggest in terms of whom to tip and in what amounts. All well and good, but it read like a how-to in minimizing tipping’s dent in your budget while maintaining a place of respect in society. This would result in a set of true tips: limited to those who have regularly served you in roles for which some level of tipping is expected and by the amounts that custom would prescribe. These are still good tips to make, but in so doing you are merely fulfilling basic duty.

More hopeful is a recent op-ed titled “How I Reached My Tipping Point.” Author Allan Ripp is clear that he fulfills the basic duties described above, but he goes further, giving to “the people going about their jobs with no expectation of being thanked” and “for the ones who don’t see it coming.” Two features of this approach distinguish it from the above. First, it is limited not to those who regularly serve you, but rather those in service roles with whom you happen to come into contact. Second, and related, it emanates from a spirit of gratitude rather than one of obligation. Thus, you give the tip expecting little, if anything, in return.

Why cultivate a spirit of gratitude? In the Judeo-Christian tradition, gratitude is the natural response to a recognition that every good thing comes from above. Our families, our talents, our material possessions, our very lives and our ultimate salvation all come from God. We can never fully repay or adequately thank God for His goodness and provision, but a spirit of gratitude is a good start.

Even if you do not attribute these things to God, though, there is ample reason to be grateful. “Privilege” is of course a taboo word in conservative circles—although the “privilege wars” seem almost quaint now—but gratitude is the natural response to a recognition of how much we have that is unearned or was made possible by factors outside of our control.

A grand, sweeping conclusion is tempting here. If we merely cultivate a spirit of gratitude, it would read, American society will be transformed. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen. But finding ways to express gratitude and give with no expectation of return—to swim upstream against the voice in your head that worries about your budget, your future, your dreams—is a good start.

Carter Skeel is director of development at the Institute on Religion and Public Life.

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