Deep Thoughts: Tipping

I’ve given some thoughts to tipping as of late, since taking my fiancee out to dinner to celebrate my new (if less than ideal) job raised an obvious tipping situation.  It’s always a bit of a conundrum; how much do you tip?  Do you tip fifteen percent, ten percent, twenty, or some other value?  How much should the level of service influence the amount you leave, and what scale do you use?  Is it ever okay to not leave a tip at all?

All these questions come to mind when I sit down and think about tipping.  (I have a tendency to just add a tip to my bill upon paying it, without really dwelling too much on the philosophy of tipping.  I also tend to use one of my mental tip tricks to determine a good tip amount.)  It’s a major part of our corporate culture, particularly when it comes to dining out.  What advice can we find to guide our tipping decisions?

Tipping Philosophy

In the United States, at least, the current tipping standard is about 15-20% for good service from wait staff, with ten percent being reserved for poor service (and less than that for truly horrendous service).  Of course, while restaurants are the most commonly encountered situations where tipping is ‘required’, it’s far from the only one; it seems there’s a large (and ever increasing) number of service providers for whom tips are suggested.  A complete list, courtesy of J.D. Roth of Get Rich Slowly, should give you a good idea of just when tipping is needed, as well as the appropriate amounts.

Let's not even get into the troubles of tipping in a foreign country
Let's not even get into the troubles of tipping in a foreign country

But why do we tip in the first place?  The most commonly cited reason is that tips serve as reward for good service; rising to meet a standard level of service merits a good tip, while going above and beyond deserves a great tip.  It’s similar to a bonus for salaried workers, motivating fast and professional service.

Except that it doesn’t.  Apparently the biggest motivator in how much we tip is fear of social disapproval.  We tip not because we think that the service is great, but because we don’t want to be seen as cheap.  The performance level affects how much we tip about as much as the weather; neither one has much of effect on how much the average person tips.

There’s another twist to the whole tipping issue, as well: for all the talk of tipping as ‘optional’ or a reward for good service, it’s really not.  Tipping is not only considered a near requirement when dining out (or again, in many other situations), but tipping amounts are actually incorporated into the law.  Yes, the minimum wage of tipped workers is significantly less than that of workers who don’t receive tips ($2.13 vs $7.25; workers who receive tips can be paid less than one third the wages of non-tipped employees).  Without receiving tips, workers like waitresses and waiters would be making well below a living wage ($2.13 per hour for 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year yields an income of $4260, well below the poverty line).

Another strike against the ‘tipping as good work incentive’ theory is that wait staff aren’t the only ones who depend on tips.  Frequently, the tip money that waiters and waitresses collect is distributed to busboys, bartenders, and host/esses or pooled among the wait staff and divided up at the end of the shift.  This means lower motivation from individual tips (if your coworkers’ actions can have as much, if not more, effect on your take home pay as your own actions, why stress yourself to try your hardest?)

It also points out a fact about waiting on tables that might not be apparent while you’re sitting there, deciding on a tip amount: it’s not a one person job.  Perhaps your dinner takes a long time to be served because the waiter is lagging, but it could be a kitchen problem.  Lowering the tip you leave might end up punishing the waiter for something out of his control.

My Thoughts on Tipping

So, with all these explanations about why we don’t tip to encourage good behavior, why do we tip?  Well, as mentioned, we tip to avoid feeling guilty, and to make ourselves look better in front of our acquaintances.  We also tip to keep restaurant prices down (if restaurants paid their employees more to compensate for a lack of tips, it would end up making food more expensive).  Although we make not want to admit, we will tip to avoid having vengeance enacted upon us; unless you are a world-traveler (or about to join a monastery), there’s a good chance that you will go to the same restaurant again, and most of us don’t want to give the staff a reason to spit in our food.

Where do I stand on tipping?  I tend to view it as a necessary evil.  Our current economic environment and the expectation of tips by employees, employers, customers and even the government mean that situations where tipping is expected, if not all but required, will not decrease any time soon (and it seems, will continue their pattern of increasing as we move forward).  Given that, as well as the fact that many of those who are being tipped count on that money (and might be earning a lower amount in hourly wages as a result), my advice is: just do it.  Tip, and tip well (particularly if you are in a group; there are few things that will annoy your dining companions more than you tossing in an inadequate amount and requiring them to make up the difference).

“But,” you ask, anticipating my response, “what if the service is bad?  Aren’t tips supposed to reward good service, with low or no tips encouraging the wait staff to work harder?”  Well, as we discussed, not everything about your meal is under the waiters’ control, so you may be punishing them for something they cannot help.  Also, there’s a good chance that, without any other information to help guide them, the wait staff will misunderstand your intentions.  Imagine that you are a waiter, and you get a tip that is rather meager; will you think that you were less professional while waiting on that table, or that it was simply a table of cheapskates?

If you are in a restaurant and receive poor service, a better response is the one recommended by Find A Link: leave a tip and talk to the management about the service you received.  You’ll be sure that the issue is addressed and don’t have to worry about appearing cheap, stiffing the waiter (and possibly some other waitstaff or customers) or inciting a lifelong vendetta against you.  (Again, a reminder when dining out: the current standard for a ‘decent’ tip is fifteen percent; don’t stiff the wait staff, or force your dining companions to cover for your cheapness.)

It’s time for your views.  Has tipping gotten to be too important when dining out?  Do you feel that fifteen percent is too much, too little, or just right?  Does it bother the heck out of you when your dining companions don’t chip in enough for the tip?  (It’s a pet peeve of mine, as you may have guessed.)

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