Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Tipping - the American Approach

I was interested to read about an American woman who was literally hounded and harassed on-line for not leaving a tip in an Atlanta, Georgia restaurant. She says she did leave a tip but admits to writing an online review in which she said the food was "tepid". In retaliation, the restaurant manager put a photo of her on Facebook and Twitter, and warned other restaurants owners not to let her into their establishments. Oh, and he said they should all tell her to "Go F**K herself". 

And he wonders why he didn't get tipped?

The owner of the restaurant has since apologized and offered free meals etc to make up for things, but it's the comments of the readers that interest me. Although many of them didn't quite go as far as defending the manager, they roundly criticized the habit of not leaving a tip, even when presented with tepid food, as in this case.

I've lived in the States for over 20 years, and no matter how bad a meal or service gets, I have never met an American who is comfortable with leaving no tip at all. The reason usually given is that not only do wait staff earn a ridiculously low hourly rate (and therefore need those tips), but the problem is not always their fault. In my experience however, even when the problem is directly because of poor wait service, a tip of some size will be left.  Given that the tipping rate here is not less than 15% and usually closer to 20%, a reduced tip to reflect reduced satisfaction is still better than a slap round the chops with a wet lettuce. 

Such is the culture of tipping in this country that you can buy tipping ready-reckoners, the size of credit cards, to help you calculate the required tip. For the more tech-savvy, there are countless tip calculator apps and web sites, such as this one, that not only figure out your tip, but tell you how much each person should pay if you're splitting the bill between a number of people. 

It's much harder to come across advice for tipping when the service is bad, and one site even pulled up this comment as proof of my point:  "If we eat a meal with absolutely horrible service, believe it or not, we still tip. However, we NEVER go back again and let everyone we know of the bad service. I think that's even worse. If you own a restaurant, you want feedback. If people all of a sudden stop showing up, I think that's much worse than giving a bad tip."  

Well yes, bad word of mouth is a killer, but you STILL TIP. Isn't that a tad cowardly? Although given the lead story here, you never know what's going to happen these days if you skip on a tip.


  1. Oh I don't tip here if the food is bad. In fact the other day I sent the food back and demanded a refund - the turkey was totally off in this diner and probably a health hazard! But I am a Brit so I know what you mean Americans will always tip even if the food is shit.

  2. The tipping situation in US restaurants is ridiculous. It's absolutely true that wait staff earn only a nominal amount of money - well below minimum wage - from their salaries. When I was waiting tables during grad school, the way it worked was, you made something like $2/hour and it was expected that you would earn enough in tips to add up to minimum wage. In theory, if you didn't make enough tips to equal minimum wage, the restaurant would make up the difference, although I don't know if that ever happened. I do always leave some sort of a tip, unless a server is outright rude or incompetent. Having been the victim of slow or bad line cooks, supplies that ran out mid-shift, bartenders who played favorites (and therefore didn't get your drinks out as fast as some other servers')and other circumstances beyond my own control, I know that a bad restaurant experience is not always the fault of the server, and I know it's an extremely difficult (and often thankless) job. I don't hesitate to speak to managers if I feel there's a problem, but if my server seems to be making a sincere effort, I do always leave some sort of a tip.
    It was always my understanding that tips were a little something extra used to recognize outstanding service. As it's developed in the US, it's now expected, and I don't care for it. In Seoul, tips are not expected (in fact, people become offended if you try to give them extra money, unless they are used to working with tourists) and it's wonderful not to look at prices and have to do mental gyrations about how much things will really cost after you add sales tax (it's included in prices in Korea) and a tip. Definitely something I do not miss!

  3. Oh, I'd hate to be obliged to tip whether I felt it was earned or not.
    I think everyworker should get a decent wage so that they wouldn't need to be so tip conscious.
    However, that manager was bang out of order.

    I always tip if I feel it is merited but not if I feel there was a glaring fault with the meal. (Not the waitresses fault most of the time, though.)
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

  4. Loving this debate coz, yes, the tipping culture in America is so ingrained that I think people are compulsed to tip...when I moved to the US, I definitely upped my tips to keep up, but now we're in Dubai (and tips are British-style) I've easily gone back to British tipping. My DH (American), however, still tips generously and would have a really hard time leaving nothing. Often I feel like I must be a complete meanie! But then the kids make such a mess at the dinner table and on the floor, DH's tip is probably about right!

  5. The tipping culture drove me mad to begin with here, but now I've semi learned to accept that if in doubt, tip heavily. But I do wonder whether, if this culture wasn't so prevalent, restaurant owners would have to up their employees wages and sort it out. After all it isn't like that in Britain and restaurants still seem to thrive?

  6. I confess - I'm struggling with not leaving a tip here in the UK. (I usually leave SOMETHING if service is good).

    Here is my take:

    If the SERVICE is poor, I leave a 10% tip (because, hey, we all have off days). IF it is TOTAL crap (missed orders, etc), I have no problem leaving nothing.

    If there is any question of the food, however, I relay this to the server/manager. Won't punish the server for poor food (unless its been left under the heat lamp forever due to lousy service.)

    I think the prevailing mentality is that if you leave nothing, you're just cheap - if you leave a very small tip, THAT is the insult. (Personally, I don't quite see the diff - either way could be perceived as cheap)

    My dad leaves a quarter if the service is bad!

  7. As an American, I'll admit to being caught in the tipping trap. I have no problem complaining about the food or sending it back even, but I always tip - 20% mostly. I "punish" places I didn't like by not returning, but they don't care.

    No one here has yet mentioned the very common practice now of management arbitrarily adding a tip to the bill for larger parties. I know it is harder for a wait person to serve a large party of people, but do they think a large party won't tip or what? You have probably noticed it on your bill: "A gratuity of 18% will be added for parties of 8 or more persons." Any comments on that practice? You have no choice but to tip, like it or not.

    When they do that to me, 18% is what they get, even though I would have normally tipped 20-25% for outstanding service.

  8. R Max - the "service charge" in the UK is quite common which is probably why we are less likely to leave a generous tip - it's often done already.

    I can never understand why it's more difficult to serve 6 people at my table or the two tables separately that have just been shoved together to seat us. Either way, it's still the same number of patrons in the restaurant.
    AND - (on a roll here) it's not uncommon anyway for meals to be served as they are ready rather than all together, leaving some members sitting with nothing in front of them. The last time that happened to me, (in a fairly nice restaurant) I asked them to hold everything and keep it warm until it was ready to be served at the same time. (We were an 8).

  9. It's slightly different again in France. The service charge must, legally, be included, "service compris", so you are not expected to leave a tip unless for exceptional service. In practice we almost always leave some small change but I know French people don't.

  10. The tip I still find odd is the $1/drink tip for being served at a US bar. It's such a mundane task, pouring a beer, it seems odd to tip. At least with a restaurant, the experience can be variable, so in theory at least, you can vary your tip accordingly.

  11. Not that I go to bars much these days (sigh) but if I'm buying drinks a lot I don't always leave a tip every time. Best thing is to leave a card behind the bar (if you trust them) and then just a tip at the end.
    God that sounds really mean doesn't it? But you end up forking out quite a lot for tips, when basically the bar staff aren't doing that much beyond their job. Hmm...

  12. Dear USA,

    I'm a pretty well travelled Britisher and tipping in the States will remain, til my dying day, a befuddling matter unless you help me out.

    Please: someone, just give me a guide and I will follow it.

    I get that 20% in restaurants is cool pretty much. But when it comes to sitting at a bar on my own or indeed in bars at tables with chums, I have no idea. The scowls I sometimes got shows that I was all wrong. I'm sorry.

    And then in hotels. Daily tips for the cleaners? I CAN see that but don't know how that works. Do I leave it on the sideboard?

    Even the raising of the arm for a cab by a bell hop when a cab was metres away seemed to attract a dollar bill. But seems a bit much to me. I will happily tip for bag carrying mind.

    I have not been, am not and do not intend to be a stingy man. I will confess to not knowing better though.

    It is fascinating that there does seem to be a nationwide agreement on tipping conventions. Whether Florida, Maine, California, Louisiana, Nevada, Nebraska, Illinois or DC. I knew I was getting it wrong and the tuts and hidden grumbles showed me that.

    Americans will tell you everything. Salaries, sexlives and future plans.

    Coy on tipping though! When I did ask: "Help me out here. What is an honest tip?" The response was always non comittal or uncharacteristally unamerican and evasive.

    Dear people of the US, help me: tell me what I should tip. And then, maybe, I might get it right.

    If you tell me, and I still get it wrong. Shame on me. The buck stops with me. But we would like to know,


    The people of the world

  13. I'm an American (from California)and do not understand American tipping culture! People expect tips for EVERYTHING - for pouring me a cup of coffee, a tip? I always tip in restaurants in the US though if I've had a bad experience/service, I was always taught you still leave something, like 25cents!, to indicate you are acknowledging the service, but it was poor.

    Having now lived in the UK for 7.5 years, I can't seem to get a handle on when to tip, or how much. And who? Do I tip my hairdresser? What about the taxi driver? Most of the time the only place I tip is in a restaurant in the UK.

  14. I usually tip taxi drivers in the UK, but not a percentage. I usually just throw the change at them, (not literally).

  15. Moving to Canada meant I had to get to grips with tips! I visited the British Expats Forum and boy! were they a prickly bunch.
    It seems that although nobody likes tipping, almost everyone does it and they hate nothing more than someone who doesn't. Why wouldn't they - it's like someone getting something for free! I'm fine with rewarding good work but totally against the PRESSURE to tip, regardless of service. In my opinion, it's a patrons right to leave a tip - not their duty.
    I wrote a post about it a while ago which you may want to read...

  16. Advice for those visiting Britain - you don't HAVE to tip. Ever. Not taxi drivers (though I might round up to the nearest pound), not hairdressers (they cost a fortune to start with) and not even restaurants - only if you want to. And 10% is quite adequate. Again, we sometimes just round up, so would make £37 up to £40 or whatever. Or £19.50 up to £20!

    I'll tip if the service is particularly good, but not if it isn't. Including in the US, where, hey, I'm a visitor anyway so they can give me all the scowls they like. If they weren't good at serving they don't deserve extra.

    If I ever go to a hotel (a rare occurrence) I make sure I carry my own bags, get my own cabs, and why would anyone tip bar staff? Pouring drinks is their job! If I got to know them a bit I might buy them a drink though. I do leave tips for cleaners at the end of a stay though, if they've done a good job.

    I probably sound mean, but actually everything's so expensive anyway, including in the US now that the exchange rate isn't very favourable to the UK, that I can't afford to tip really. And as for sales tax, it's ridiculous. Why don't they just add it on?

    Staff should be paid properly, and customers should tip because they want to show appreciation of good service, not because of some dreadful obligation. I won't subscribe to it.

  17. God Americans are so cheeky when it comes to tips they EXPECT it rather than appreciate it. I'm shocked at how they actually are annoyed when u dont give them enough.

    Staying in a hotel in Vegas I ordered room service and it came to $45 Im crap at working out percentage so I gave him fifty dollars and just said keep the change thinking that was okay ... he replied in an angry sarcastic voice "GEE WOW I GET TO KEEP FIVE DOLLARS" and stormed out of the room mad at me. I was in absolute shock how dare they expect more!!! they should be happy with what they get if it wasnt part of the bill. If minimum wage in the US cant pay the bills then these people need to get a better job. The usa really should just add the service cost on and give it to their staff as really the customers dont actually have a choice its either pay a certain amount tip or look like a tight ass its so annoying. You may as well look at the cost in a menu and add a few dollars to every price as you will be paying more than u think. Tip for what??.. for the WAITER to bring your food out aka their JOB that they are paid to fo. christ its madness why tip a waiter for just doing their job? We dont tip emergency services for saving lives when we actually probably should so f*** the waiters

  18. SupermumP - I think I would have picked the phone up and asked to speak to the manager after that outrageous cheek. Seriously!

  19. I thought the tip was for the service, not the food. So if the food was tepid, or not to my liking, I would still tip, and I might take up the food issue with the manager separately.

    Yes, it is a minefield.

  20. Goodness gracious! Getting very worked up around here. If you can't afford the tip you can't afford the meal or the service. It's simply part of the price. If you don't want to tip, stay home, cook your own meal. This is giving me insights into why it was sometimes a bit difficult to wait on Britishers at the bed and breakfast. They were so busy working themselves up over the tip it affected how they ordered the meal and enjoyed the meal. I think they were so obsessed with the tip it would be hard to convince them we, the servers weren't. We actually enjoyed our job and took the tips as they came or didn't.
    Not everybody actually tips room cleaners, but do! It's just a nice thing to do. Leave the cash on the bureau or desk, not on the bed. Smaller amounts daily are better than a large amount at the end of your stay.
    Try thinking of yourself as a generous person, not as someone who's being taken advantage of and you'll feel better about the whole thing. Maybe this is why Americans take it for granted and even can enjoy tipping. It's a small chance to be a big-hearted person out in the cold, cold world.

  21. Lynn - Actually that's a great attitude. When I am happy with something, I now tend to tip more. I still don't tip for crap attitude or service, but thinking of it as doing something nice instead of being taken for granted is a good approach.

  22. Absolutely fascinating reading the comments. So many different approaches to such a thorny subject. I remember when my mum and dad visited America and had a poor meal they left a small tip: as they left, the chap ran outside after them and terrified them by shouting and screaming at them!

  23. I agree with Lynn's attitude there - I've never felt obligated to leave a tip, even though I know it's expected.

    As a server, a low tip is considered worse than no tip at all - I used to consider that leaving a very low tip was a way of showing my displeasure with the service, but now think of that as a bit passive/aggressive. I'd rather talk to a manager and try to resolve the problem.

    I live in Lima, Peru now, where tipping is not expected, but incredibly appreciated. One thing I've learned here is never to include the tip on the credit card bill but always to give cash directly to the server. Tips put on the CC will most likely never make it into their hands but will be kept by the restaurant.


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