Strong opinions, weakly held


Steven A. Shaw argues in the New York Times that we should do away with tipping. Here’s the crux of the matter:

Customers believe in tipping because they think it makes economic sense. “Waiters know that they won’t get paid if they don’t do a good job,” is how most advocates of the system (meaning most everybody in America) would put it. To be sure, this is a seductive, apparently rational statement about economic theory, but it appears to have little applicability to the real world of restaurants.

I have a standard formula for calculating tips from which I rarely deviate, regardless of the quality of service. (I generally leave $1 in gratuity per $5 of the bill, rounding up.) If I’m eating at a nice restaurant, I will leave a larger than average tip if service was exceptional. Also, if I’m a regular at a restaurant I’ll often tip a bit more, especially if the place is inexpensive, just so the servers are happy to see me when I arrive.


  1. There’s another issue. Many customers forget that bad service is not always caused by the waiter(ess). Sometimes (in fact, often) the kitchen can be at fault, but since crap tends to roll downhill, the person who suffers is the one who brings your food.

    I myself always give the waitstaff a break when this occurs if they bother to keep me posted about the whereabouts of my dinner, or offer to correct any problems with my order in the case should it be botched. Not everyone is as forgiving.

    Personally, I wouldn’t mind going to a European-style system. I encountered this when I stayed in Germany a few years ago. Prices were fixed and final for all items and included everything (taxes + service fees). They also eschewed what I call the “something 99” pricing model; all prices were rounded up to the nearest whole mark (now Euro). Made calculating the bill super easy.

  2. One dollar in every five seems to me an incredibly generous tip. That’s not to say it’s wrong. Perhaps that’s what I should be paying in the USA. God knows the waitpeople need it.

    But I pay between 10 and 12.5 per cent from habit — I think an eighth is right, and I don’t like tipping at all, because it intorduces a relationship of direct servility between me and the waiter. In Sweden and Germany we never tipped; in England it varies.

    Lots of places have “service included” on the bill and leave a space for the tip on the credit card receipt anyway. I never tip there at all.

    My mother tips hugely, being 88, and we get astonishing service at the local Turkish restaurant as a result. They’ll even turn the music down for her. But that’s a special case…

  3. Being from Germany, I never got the US-style tipping system. (I mean, I get how it’s supposed to work, I just don’t get why you’d do it that way.) I like it the way it is in Germany: you generally do leave tips. However, they are a lot less generous. Waiters in Germany do get a normal wage, however it is set very low in the expectation of tips coming in. So you leave something extra — but only if the service was good. If it was average, you just round up the bill to whatever seems convenient to you at the time. If service was bad, you don’t give any. How realistic is that in the US, to just leave no tip for bad service? Is it done? On the other hand, when I spent two weeks in Japan, I learned to love their system even more: no tips at all. It’s just that much easier and it works as well.

  4. I think that in the US if you go to a restaurant where tipping is customary and you leave no tip, you’re generally a jerk. As the linked article points out, many restaurants split up the tips among the staff anyway, and even if that’s not the case, waiters generally share their tips with busboys and other service staff. If your service is really poor, you should talk to the manager, I think, not skip the tip.

  5. Andrew – Spend some time reading through the archives at Waiter Rant (http://www.waiterrant.net) – he’s pretty convincing with his arguments that even 15% is rather low these days. I don’t particularly like tipping either, but skimping on it won’t change the custom and just hurts the servers.

    He really didn’t like this article either. http://waiterrant.net/?p=187

    I have no idea how much of what the guy writes is embellished, but he spins a good yarn about waiting tables and managing an upscale bistro.

    Myself, I tip around 18% if things are fine. 15% if just adequate. 20% or more if things went very nicely or we were demanding (and satisfied) in some way.

    Alas, staff turnover at the restaurants we tend to go to locally is so frequent, that it’s hard to become a ‘regular’ – much as my smalltown self would like to. And one place I really do want to become a regular at is priced such that it must be saved for special occasions. Ah well…

  6. Yeah, in the US, the tip is basically part of the servers’ pay. At many restaurants in most states the servers get paid far less than the standard minimum wage (some states require the standard minimum wage even for servers). The 15% tip is an informal yet required part of the cost of going to a restaurant in the US, in my opinion. I generally tip 20% or more (mainly because it’s easier to figure out than something less) unless the service is abominable and clearly the fault of the server. On especially small bills, I tip a couple of bucks.

    I find, however, that nearly everyone has strong feelings on the subject, one way or the other. When I first starting paying for my own meals I was an extremely stingy tipper. My friends who had worked as servers always gave me a hard time and we would argue about it. But at some point, I think it was after I got a (well-paying) full time job after I graduated from college, I started feeling much more generous, and frankly appreciative of the crappy job servers have to do.

  7. No way doing waway with tipping is this guy crazy who wrote this piec ein thetimes. As a formaer server myself to pay my way through College I counted on tips to pay for books gas food etc this guy is nuts

  8. A previous commenter said: One dollar in every five seems to me an incredibly generous tip. That’s not to say it’s wrong. Perhaps that’s what I should be paying in the USA. God knows the waitpeople need it.

    But I pay between 10 and 12.5 per cent from habit — I think an eighth is right, and I don’t like tipping at all, because it intorduces a relationship of direct servility between me and the waiter. In Sweden and Germany we never tipped; in England it varies.


    Well, i have to say that you’re probably leaving a wake of bad feelings if you’re doing this in the US, where 15% is considered standard, and 20% is becoming more and more common.

    The larger question seems good, however; if nobody feels that they have the right to punish bad service (since it might not be the waiter’s fault, short of outright rudeness), and everybody tips almost the same amount (roughly 18%, with variation having more to do with customer personality than with service quality), why not do away with the tipping and increase wages? Do we really think that service would crash under those circumstances? Should anybody be making $2.50 per hour and whoring their way up to “minimum wage”? etc.

  9. That’s the argument made in the op-ed I linked to initially. Judging from the comments on the post at Waiter Rant, most servers don’t seem to agree with it, though. In any case, I think that such a fundamental change is unlikely to happen, except perhaps at exceptional restaurants like Per Se.

  10. I guess the thing about tips–assuming they work as I believe they do, ie the server gets all or most of the tip I leave for him or her–you as a patron can be sure the server is getting that amount. If they just raise the prices 20%, what makes you think that the owners will be passing all of that along to the servers. Of course, they won’t be.

    That’s why I think we can’t really get out of the tipping structure we have, and honestly, I don’t know what’s so wrong with it. It doesn’t make pure logical sense, but what part of any culture does?

  11. That’s the argument made in the op-ed I linked to initially.

    ^Surely you don’t expect us to read what you link to before we comment, do you??^

  12. well, I knew that that was the op-ed’s argument — I just am reiterating that I think they’re good questions and don’t really know the answers (nor have thought along such lines before).

    almost certainly true, though that such a huge industry-wide change is unlikely to occur — it’s already built into How Business Is Done . . .

  13. There isn’t really much of a tipping culture in Ireland, so having visited the USA recently I’m following this string with interest.

    I’m afraid I just hated the system in the USA – it was one of the few things that spoiled what was otherwise a terrific vacation for myself and my wife. Here’s some of the reasons why.

    • all the internet sites we looked at suggested 15% as appropriate in restaurants, but we discovered later that the going rate is now 18-20%. How did this increase come about, and how were we supposed to know? And if you only give 18% does that still make you a cheapskate?

    • In all restaurants we were greeted with exactly the same patter and behaviour. My plate was lifted as soon as I had finished, even though my wife was still eating; the bill was presented with the coffee whether we asked for it or not. On the other hand, the food was nearly always good, the waiters were invariably pleasant and the service was mostly brisk. I just couldn’t be bothered working out the percentages, so in the end, I gave a $10 tip for all evening meals which usually cost us between $50 and $70 (including tax) and a $5 tip for lunch (usually $30-35.) Next time I visit I think I’ll give a straight 20% so that I can sleep with a good conscience, but I bet it won’t make the slightest difference to the service.

    • getting to the USA in the first place cost us well over a $1,000 , so we were on a tight budget. Then, everytime a bill was presented, we found all kinds of tax added on. So whereever possible we carried our own luggage, had light continental breakfast, etc. You can bet this didn’t make us very popular with bellhops, etc., but we felt we had no alternative, and shouldn’t be treated less favourably in consequence, particularly as the room rate was pretty steep to begin with.

    • One last story. The taxi driver who took us from the airport to our hotel charged us over 30 dollars, which I knew was too much. I tipped him about 10% and the b***d wouldn’t even lift our bags from the trunk. In contrast, the taxi driver, an Ethiopian, who took us back to the airpost took a different and quicker route. He charged us $19, helped us with our bags, and refused to accept more than a small tip even though he was one of the few people I wanted to tip really well. (I should add that he also had an alarming habit of swerving across traffic lanes, but this just made the journey more memorable.) The moral of this story is: non-white taxi drivers are more honest and much nicer people. And they give you a really fun ride.

    Overall, I think it would be better either to add a straight service charge, or increase the basic cost of services, and then pay waiters, etc. a decent wage. The current system is inconsistent, grovelling and blackmailing. Even Americans don’t seem to know exactly how it works. I’d chuck it, or at least reform it. That’s just my opinion.

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