NPR recently featured a segment on tipping, positing that while many people believe they tip to reward good service, they actually tip out of guilt for being served by another. The segment points out that people tend to tip at fairly constant rates, regardless of how good the service is, and more interestingly, the services that conventionally require tips in the United States are those where the person receiving the service is having a lot more fun than the server. People at restaurants and hotels tip; people at the dentist do not.
Guilt seems to make up a large share of my (admittedly under-average) emotional spectrum, so I find this very compelling. The segment points out a downside to this: tipping out of guilt may not be efficient. Tippers may give an amount larger than the value of the service to them, and tips that don’t vary with service quality don’t provide incentives for better service.
Tipping norms in Ghana are quite different from those in the United States: tips are not necessarily expected for restaurant service, but for help with directions, with making a large purchase, or with loading bags onto a bus, a tip, or “dash” is expected. (“Dash” functions as both a noun and a verb.) Often, the services you are expected to dash for are services you don’t even want, and the tipper may even give money just to get someone to go away. The role of guilt in tipping is compounded in these situations by the uncertainty foreigners may have regarding tipping norms and by the income disparity between the average foreigner and the people who do these types of jobs in Ghana.
The trouble with this is that the efficiency of the tip is further diminished. While guilt may make me a generally good tipper, as an economist, I also feel guilty when I tip for poor service or services I don’t want, thus providing poor incentives. Here is my advice on tipping in Ghana to maximize good incentives:
Restaurants: Tipping is not mandatory for food service, though it becomes more expected the more upscale the venue. I highly recommend giving small tips/dashes that are very sensitive to the quality of service. At a local eating spot, 1 GHS is a good tip for basic service, and will likely get you a little extra attention next time you visit. At a nice restaurant in Accra, a 10% tip for good service seems to be well-received. The rarity of tipping in Ghanaian restaurants presents an opportunity to tie tipping to good service, so I would urge varying tips accordingly, giving nothing for poor service, and large tips for good service.
Bags: If someone helps you carry your bag, it is very much expected you will give a dash. If you don’t want to, then be firm about carrying your own bags.
Bus baggage: Small dashes are often expected for loading your bags under a bus. It is hard to avoid using this service. This is the context where I have found demands for dashes to be most outrageous. A dash should not be mandatory for this—I have seen supervisors yell at men who demanded a dash before loading bags. I would recommend resisting anyone who demands one before helping you. The dash should also not be large. I once encountered a man who refused my 1 GHS dash and demanded 2 GHS. I gave him nothing. I would not give more than 1 GHS unless your bags are many, or you receive some special assistance with them. Note that a dash for loading should not be confused with an actual fee for baggage.
Directions: You should not have to pay a dash for directions. If someone walks a long way with you to show you where something is, a dash may or may not be demanded. If you don’t want to give one, don’t accept the escort.
Assistance with purchases: If someone helps you locate, select, bargain for, and complete a substantial purchase, a dash may be in order. Things to consider: how much help you received, how much time and money you saved as a result of the help, and whether the person got any financial gain from your purchase. Generally, anyone who approaches YOU about buying something doesn’t need a dash.
Household errands: If you have a guard or groundskeeper, the person will often run errands for you. You should dash to compensate for their travel costs and efforts.
Professional services: Professional services outside a person’s normal job may require a dash, depending on the job and the organization a person works with. As an example, I had a document notarized by a judge in Tamale, and I paid a 5 GHS dash for his time and trouble.
Stealth window washing: One of the strangest things about Accra are stealth window washers, who swoop in on a car waiting at an intersection, squeegee the front windshield despite the driver’s protests, and then demand a dash after. No matter how guilty you feel, please, please do not dash for this or other unwanted services that are forced on you; you will only encourage the practice.
Further advice on tipping in Ghana (or anywhere else)? Please contribute in the comments!
I have worked in economic policy and research in Washington, D.C. and Ghana. My husband and I recently moved to Guyana, where I am working for the Ministry of Finance. I like riding motorcycle, outdoor sports, foreign currencies, capybaras, and having opinions.