The Psychology of Tipping

Do American tipping practices help the customer more than the waitstaff?

Posted Nov 30, 2015

Tipping remains arguably one of the most anxiety-provoking practices in America, and one loaded with baggage on either side, both pro and con. America is one of the few countries left that fully relies on individual tipping in restaurants and other service industries, which leads to awkward encounters whenever Americans go abroad and try to figure out the bill at the end of the meal. Tipping goes to the heart of the consumer-server relationship and the nature of that enterprise: should feelings towards that server be rewarded or punished? Is that fair? Is it generous or selfish? Is it cruel or more personal? Whose guilt is being absolved? Who has more power in the relationship?

Interestingly different cultures perceive tipping in vastly different ways. In Japan, tipping is actually considered insulting, because of a strong cultural emphasis on personal pride and honor in performing service duties. To throw money into that equation would demean a server’s work ethic and honesty. In many places in Europe, tipping in included in bills as service charges, as a fair labor wage regardless of the server’s charm. When I tried asking about whether tipping was acceptable to a waitress in France, she looked upset even at the question (and perhaps my rusty French added to the confusion), and a waitress in Germany also seemed annoyed, saying in German something to the effect of “you tip if you want to tip, whatever.” I was trying to ask in order to prevent what I viewed as the horrible action of NOT tipping when it was expected, and yet even the question itself was taken strangely; the cultural context shifted its meaning from one of concerned generosity to one of nonsensical mootness.

In America, anti-tipping movements come and go, and a new one has started up recently led by a few luxury restaurants in Manhattan. Of course it was a prestigious Japanese one that kickstarted the trend, Sushi Yasuda, but soon several other premier restaurant gurus like Danny Meyer and Thomas Keller copied the idea of a built-in service charge. Some have praised the practice, saying it guarantees fair wages and a true salary for notoriously underpaid waiters who otherwise usually don’t even make minimum wage. But others say it means higher taxes and accountability for waiters who need to live off tips (and can get away with underreporting cash ones to the IRS) and tight financial margins, and encouraging weaker service.

Adding to the confusion is the question of whether extra tipping is forbidden or expected on top of a service charge (an issue I encountered during a recent trip to the Bahamas, where a 15% service charge was included in most bills, but I ended up adding in 3-5% if I found the service satisfactory matching my usual 18-20% in the U.S.)

Ultimately, the vast majority of Americans usually say in various polls that they prefer tipping. The reason is likely because tipping gives customers a sense of control (and choice and freedom are emphasized strongly in our individualistic society.) Tipping can incentivize servers to work harder and improve their service for higher tips in theory, or punish them if they are awful. Or at least, this is the sensation tipping gives the American customer—the sense of empowerment during the fraught class dynamics of the customer-server interaction. Tipping provides the sense that the relationship is clean and obvious: it’s about getting money, period. For a country still overcoming its history of slavery, perhaps tipping reduces that cultural guilt, if only slightly.

Yet, various reports and studies say that tipping, if anything, leaves workers more beholden to unfair labor practices and wages, and more pressured by customer service performance. People aren’t always uniform or fair about how they tip for various levels of service; some will always be stingy even after receiving stellar service, and others will be generous uniformly. There have been notorious websites set up where waiters anonymously expose celebrities who leave crappy tips (with several repeat offenders), and others who are remarkably munificent. But ultimately for the worker, it is still the luck of the draw then.

It remains to be seen whether the new anti-tipping movement will catch on, and whether ultimately it is the service worker who wins in this new culture. For now, it is worth taking a good hard look at your motivations for tipping…and to see if you are really helping someone as much as you think you are, when you participate in our American tipping culture.