Semiotics 1980 pp 373-382 | Cite as

Tipping Behavior as a Semiotic Process


In this paper I draw attention to semiotic aspects of the tipping custom, i.e., to patterns of interpretation associated with the giving and receiving of gratuities. The transfer of money tips, of Trinkgeld, pourboire, to waiters, taxi-drivers, beauticians, etc., may of course be viewed simply as economic-utilitarian transactions, whether they be classified as gifts or as due payments or as something in between. But money in general, in the words of the sociologist Talcott Parsons, can be treated as “a very highly specialized language,” economic transactions as “types of conversations,” the circulation of money as “the sending of messages.” To the anthropologist Lévi-Strauss, economics is part of an integrated science of communication, dealing with the exchange of commodities, just as linguistics deals with the exchange of (verbal) messages and social anthropology with the exchange of mates. The exchange of commodities and money, Umberto Eco explains, can be considered a semiotic phenomenon because in the exchange the use value of the goods is transformed into their exchange value, which involves a process of signification or symbolization. Along this same line of thinking, Roman Jakobson has called for the investigation of the symbolic aspects of economic transactions as one of the most worthy tasks of applied semiotics.1 What is true of economic transactions in general is true, I am sure, of the tipping custom to a much greater extent; for, as I hope to show, gratuities allude not only to the use value of services performed, but, more importantly, they are manipulated to affirm or affect a whole network of social relationships.


Taxi Driver Economic Transaction Semiotic Process Reciprocity Obligation 7New York Time 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Roman Jakobson, “Linguistics,” in Main Trends of Research in the Social and Human Sciences, Part One: Social Sciences (Mouton & UNESCO: Paris & The Hague, 1970), 419–63; here pp. 425–428. Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (Indiana U. P.: Bloomington), pp. 24–25.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    On the Scope of Semiotics: A Critique and Redefinition,“ in A Semiotic Landscape (Proceedings of the First Congress of the International Association for Semiotic Studies, Milan, 1974), Mouton: The Hague, 1979, pp. 336–340. ”Natural Signs and Nonintentive Communication,“ in Proceedings of the Semiotic Society of America: First Annual Conference, 1976 (Ga. Institute of Technology: Atlanta, 1977), pp. 99–108. ”Perceptual Signs and Semiotics,“ in Proceedings of Twelfth International Congress of Linguists [Vienna, 1977] (Institut für Sprachwissenschaft: Innsbruck, 1978), pp. 736–739. See also my review article, ”Again: Where to Draw the Line,“ forthcoming in Semiotica.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    On the symbolism of gift-giving in general, and associated reciprocity obligations, cf. Marcel Mauss, The Gift (transl. from the French, Norton: New York, 1967); Peter M. Blau, Exchange and Power in Social Life (Wiley: New York, 1964), esp. pp. 108, 113; Raymond Firth, Symbols, Public and Private (Cornell U. P.: Ithaca, 1973), pp. 368–402. Also cf. Georg Simmel, The Philosophy of Money (transl. from the German, Routledge and Kegan Paul: London, 1978 ), pp. 285–288, 343, 396.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    As reported in American Business (New York City), December 1977, p. 13.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    As regards the role of “third parties,” we may quote the Soviet semiotician T. V. Civjan (“Etiquette as a Semiotic System,” in D. P. Lucid, ed.: Soviet Semiotics, Johns Hopkins Press: Baltimore, 1978, pp. 103–105): “Behavior in etiquette [here, tipping etiquette] is usually intended for at least two addressees, the immediate addressee and the distant addressee or ‘public’; in this sense it can be compared to an actor’s stage performance, which is oriented toward both his co-actor and the audience.”Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Reader’s Digest, March 1934, p. 30.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    New York Times, 20 June 1955, p. 1. Perhaps the odd amount of $17 was due to the conversion of a round sum of rubles into dollars.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Plenum Press, New York 1982

Authors and Affiliations

  • Leo Pap
    • 1
  1. 1.State University of New YorkNew PaltzUSA

Personalised recommendations