Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

I have often wondered what the correct amount is to tip someone providing service. I also wonder how the custom of tipping ever came about in the first place. After years of adding a tip to the bottom of a restaurant bill of 7%, one day, about 20 years ago, it became 10%. Ten years later it was 15%. Who comes up with these amounts? Is it still 15% or has it changed again without my knowledge? Am I going to be embarrassed next time I pay for dinner at my favorite eating establishment?

There is a Website dedicated to tipping called appropriately;The Original Tipping Page. They have a tipping chart that breaks down amounts to tip between 15 and 20 per cent(Damn! Just when I had the 15% tip down)! The site also offers a "Tipping Guide" that breaks down tips for different places such as the Barber, the Golf Club, Hotel, Supermaket (are we suppose to tip at the Supermarket too!?) and at Restaurants.

The writer of The Original Tipping Page says this about restaurant tipping: "My opinion is: tip your waiter / waitress. But this is not to say that it should be ever considered 'required'. Recently, most wait staff have lost sight of the fact that a tip is a gratuity and NOT a must. It is also a fact that in a lot of places, wait staff are underpaid (usually less than minimum wage) and must share tips with busboys, aides, etc." Most of us know to be a fact that tips are expected regardless of the quality of the service provided. I often struggle with this. My wife Duchess and I were at a new Mexican restaurant last week. The very friendly waiter (I think he may have also been the owner) took our order and brought our drinks and chips and salsa immediately. Duchess and I got lost in conversation and half and hour later realized that our food had not arrived despite the fact that we were only one of four tables in the restaurant.

The waiter came to us a few times and said, "Your order will be out shortly. May I refill your drink?" That satisfied us until about the one hour mark when we were about to give up, our plates arrived at the table with an apology - "We had a mix-up in the kitchen tonight. I am sorry for the delay." The food was very good, but the taste of the long delay lingered. When the bill arrived I immediately started to figure a 15% tip and suddenly stopped and asked myself, "Why am I tipping?"

Have you ever really stopped to think about this strange custom? Not just the how much part, but why we do all this in the first place. For example, the restaurant could just charge more for the food and pass it along in the staff's paychecks. Banks pay tellers that way - why not restaurants?

In an article from CNN Money entitled, "The logic of tipping" Annelena Lobb wrote,
"It may seem odd, but tipping some people and not others really does make sense. Some service employees offer a highly personalized service — and tipping is an efficient way of rewarding them. In a restaurant, for example, what constitutes good service is really a matter of the customer's opinion. "

Since tipping began in sixteenth century England, the reasons for tipping have changed over the years, but conforming to social norms and avoiding embarrassment were generally the main reasons. Tipping seems to improve service quality; the extent of the improvement varies across occupations. Author David Templeton says, "The etiquette of modern tipping, if there is one, has become so vague and indistinct on this service-hungry cusp of the 21st century that consumers are routinely confused about what is expected, and why. There are even voices mumbling that the whole tipping system amounts to little more than the publicly subsidized stinginess of employers, and should be abolished. Consumers of yesteryear left no more than 10 percent on fountain counters. A decade ago, it was rare for tips to be brazenly solicited for counter service, but in today's coffeehouses and juice joints, with their 'tip jars,' it has become de rigueur."

An etiquette consultant, Michele Maussion Wilson, believes otherwise. She thinks, "Tipping is part of your pleasure. It makes you feel good," she says. "And you must never simply leave the money on the table and walk away. You don't wave the money about. You discreetly leave it beneath the bill. Then you gain their eye contact, and you say, 'Thank you for your kind attention this evening.' It's so easy to do and it means so much."

Recent studies reveal that the amount of a tip often reflects factors other than the tipper's generosity or the server's ability. According to a Cornell University report, servers who introduce themselves by name receive an average tip 53 percent greater than the tip for those who do not; servers who squat next to the table while talking with customers—thereby improving eye contact—up their tips from 15 percent to 18 percent; those who write "Thank you" on the back of the check receive about an 18 percent tip, the same amount female servers get by drawing a happy face, whereas males who do so decrease their tips by 3 percent; the use of tip trays bearing credit card logos increases tips by up to 25 percent, even when customers pay cash; tips soar by 140 percent for servers who simply smile; and those who casually touch customers (e.g., once on the shoulder, twice on the palm of the hand when giving change) add to their tips by 42 percent, women customers being a bit more generous than men.

Which brings me back to my original dilemma; do I leave a tip if the food was great but I waited an hour for it? "IF YOU TIP less than 15 percent, it's assumed that you felt the service was well below expectations," says David Bynum, assistant director of Food Services at Santa Rosa's Flamingo Hotel, who adds that he's seen a slight shift upward from 15 percent. The thing about tipping is, we may expect it, but it's not obligatory," he says. "It's a gift you make to someone who deserves it."

I left 15%. What can I say? I liked the guy. And so it goes.