It maybe be disrespectful to say tipping in America is ridiculous, yet the sentiment of us foreigners is being shared by more people who feel obliged by the tipping in USA culture.
I’ve visited the United States of America more than once a year each year for the last 14 years. I probably know the country better than any other except my own. However, the tipping in USA style for almost everything is just so un-British. It is also quite uncomfortable for numerous foreign visitors.
I suppose I can sum up this vast contrast with an experience I had a few years ago….
I went to visit Augusta in Georgia for a day trip from Atlanta. It was in the run up to Christmas and I was looking for some gift ideas for my father.
He’s pretty keen on golf whereas I can’t stand the game. However with the home town of the US Masters being within easy reach I had to pay a visit.
Now the Augusta Golf Club, where the Masters is held, is a private members club so there was no way I’d ever get inside. However, the quaint little town of Augusta had a range of antique shops in the town centre. They were all selling second hand golf memorabilia so it was clearly a good spot to visit.
Whilst I was inside an antique store I noticed that the two staff working that day were elderly ladies.
One of these ladies approached me and asked if I’d be good enough to help a customer carry out to his vehicle a large wooden table he’d just bought. Happy to oblige I went over to help without a second thought.
In total it took maybe 1-2 minutes for this customer and I to carry this table outside and load it onto his trailer. Then as I turned to leave something strange happened.
He turned to me and said:
“How much do I owe you?”
I must admit to being a little baffled and queried what he said. He responded again:
“How much do I owe you? For helping me with the table.”
“You don’t owe me anything. I was just helping you. A good turn.”
I must admit to being perplexed by his persistence. This guy was as baffled as I was. He couldn’t understand why I didn’t want anything and I couldn’t understand why he wanted to give me anything at all.
When it boils down to it, this was due to a stark difference in our cultures. Us Brits, or at least the ones willing to help someone in need, don’t automatically look for something in return. Whilst a lot of the time in America people don’t expect something for nothing. Service is tipped and paid for.
This cultural difference may explain why so many visitors think tipping in America is ridiculous. The question though should be: is it?
The History of Tipping in America
As a Brit who struggles with the social pressures of feeling obliged or expected to tip, rather than a voluntary concept, the history of tipping is interesting.
Various studies attribute the practice back to Tudor England dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. However Professor Michael Lind of Cornell University found evidence dating to 1509 of a German craftsman asking for “drink money” (trinkgeld).
This whole concept of drink money, “go on by yourself a drink” seems to be where the practice evolved.
As a former British colony, the US was keen to distance itself from the UK class culture. After all America proclaims to be the greatest country in the world, where anyone can follow their dream and become a success through hard work and talent.
This was contrary to the British society of class culture where the working class would rarely achieve financial or social success beyond their peers. In fact for an upper class person to give a tip to a working class servant may in some circles be seen as patronising or demeaning.
There is evidence of tipping becoming practice in US society after the Civil War. However the sentiment to the British aristocratic class created a resentment to gratuity giving. In fact for a few years 6 US States banned tipping altogether.
With the onset of Prohibition and The Temperance Movement a lack of alcoholic sales led to tips being a way of helping workers earn a living. Even today tips can be crucial to many service workers in the US earning a living.
Over time tips became customary. In recent decades the minimum wage in the US also reflects this. Those who do not work in the service industry (i.e. not in receipt of gratuities) receive a higher minimum wage than those who do. You may be shocked to know that restaurant workers and bar staff in the US may be receiving as little as $2.13/hour. Little wonder they want your tips.
Arguments now circulate that the only people who gain from the tipping culture are the employers. They get cheap labour costs whilst we the customer end up paying more since we are tipping.
I’ve even had Americans tell me that the IRS (the US Government’s tax authority) apply an estimate of tips based on the value of food served by the restaurant employee. They then tax this employee based on this assumed income of tips. Little wonder the employee gets upset if they receive a small tip. They are still being taxed and on money they haven’t received.
TIPS = To Ensure Proper Service
There is an argument that a tipping culture encourages better service. Well from my first hand experience of travelling the world for more than a decade I can say that is absolute nonsense.
In my experience, the level of service from a tipping in USA culture is no better than anywhere else in the world. In fact, I can remember various occasions where the service in America has been appalling.
As a Brit I also struggle with the false pretension of many servers who think they come across as nice. When they don’t look you in the eye, or smile as they say “Hi, my name is Nathan and I’ll be your server today.”
Or they hit you with the standard “Be Right Back” then you don’t see them for about 15 minutes.
Also, why do servers always ask you how your meal is just after you’ve put a fork full of food in your mouth?
There is then the confusion as to who do you tip and who gets it. For instance I’ve often been to a restaurant in America and come across a range of employees.
Firstly the host welcomes you to the restaurant. A second employee takes you to your table. Either this person or another will place a menu on your table.
On some occasions someone different may then take your order. Then who knows how many people will then come and bring your food to you.
Then to end it all, the shift changes. Someone different all together comes to your table with your bill and takes payment.
I’ve encountered 4-5 different employees on this one trip. 3 of them were appalling and don’t deserve a tip. 2 were okay and I don’t begrudge their efforts. So how do I tip the ones deserving of a tip?
Also, restaurant workers, if you want a tip why can’t you bring me my bill at the end of the meal? I hate being sat there with an empty table for 15 minutes trying to get your attention for the bill whilst I want to leave. (Oh by the way, for us Brits it is a “bill” not a “check”. A bill for us is a summons for payment. A check, or as we spell it “cheque” is a paper instruction for my bank to transfer money from my bank account to yours.)
The first time I went to an American bar I was also quite astonished. The place was really busy so the bar staff were working quickly. Each time they handed over a drink to the customer then the customer would place a dollar bill on the bar as a tip for the server.
This is completely alien to anything I’d seen before. I was working out in my head that this place was so busy. If a bar tender served say 60 drinks in an hour (not unlikely since there are multi-drink rounds and the place was busy) these staff could maybe earn $60 an hour in tips! Crikey I want a job like that!
Okay, the bar is not always that busy yet for those few hours what a job to have.
Whilst I was studying for my degree I had a job in an English pub and then later a bar job. I can honestly say that I very rarely got a tip. Maybe the odd drink bought for me at Christmas but that was it. It’s just not our culture.
How much is that going to cost in America?
First time visitors to the US often get a shock when they begin to buy things. Whether it is food, drink or goods. We see a price and revert to the way we know. That is of course the price you see is the price you pay.
Yet that is not the case in America. They have State and regional sales taxes. As a result when you think something costs $100 you’ll suddenly see maybe $6-$8 added at the till. This is sales tax.
To complicate things further the tax rates vary from place to place. You could drive a few miles down the road to find a different tax rate.
So why is this important to gratuities and the tipping in USA concept?
It is simply because it makes things less transparent cost wise.
If I see a meal advertised for $20 I may be drawn in. I can budget for that cost. Then all of a sudden I need to add on $1.60 for the sales tax. Okay that’s not $20 is it?
Then what? You want me to pay my server maybe 15-20% as a tip? So another $4?
So I’ve been lured in by the appeal of a $20 meal which has now cost me $25.60.
Since we come from countries where the price you see is the price you pay, it is little wonder we become frustrated buying things in America.
How much to tip in America
After all my years of travel and discussion with US citizens there is no clear answer as to how much you should tip in America. It really does vary by region and the classy-ness of the location (some New York restaurants expect a 25% tip!). So after much research here is my rough and ready guide to tipping in America:-
Sit down meal with waiter service – 15-20% of the pre-tax bill
Buffet meal – 10% of the pre-tax bill
Valet Parking (which I loathe) – $2 – $5
Hairdresser/Barber/Pedicure/Manicure/Massage – 15-20%
Take Out – no tip
Counter service such as at a coffee shop – no tip
Home Delivery such as pizza – 10-15% or $2 – $5 per pizza
Bar tender – $1 a drink
Toilet attendant (that job stinks) – $0.50 – $3 dependent on service (- although to be honest with you I can wash and dry my own hands thank you very much. I’ve just spent a penny and put money behind your bar, why do you want more money!)
Hotel bell hop/porter – $2 first bag then $1 per extra bag
Maids at hotel (alien to me to tip these) – $2 – $3 a night (Recently a big name hotel chain launched a campaign asking guests to leave tips for the cleaning maids. This led to a massive social media backlash against the hotel chain.)
Room Service – 15 – 20%
Taxi Driver – 15 – 20% of the fare
Clearly some of my comments above reflect a massive cultural difference between my life in the UK and in the US.
In the UK if we think the service has been poor we don’t tip. In fact there are a lot of service industries in the UK where we don’t tip at all and a tip is not expected.
Things are different in America. I’ve heard of Brits being chased down the street then frog marched back to a restaurant because the server wasn’t tipped or not tipped enough. How ridiculous is that?
I can only imagine the scene if I ever dined with my Australian friend whilst in America. He said that he never tips for anything. It is just not part of Australian culture. This was also explained to me as I was picking up the tab for a business meal in Australia. There was a party of six of us yet my fellow diners said that I wasn’t obliged to tip anything at all.
The only time I’ve seen tips encouraged in Australia was a tip jar at a cafe in Parramatta. The jar was labelled with “Tipping is sexy”. Well it maybe sexy but it didn’t work. The next time I returned to this city just outside Sydney the cafe had closed down.
For me the far more straight forward way of doing things is
the price you see is the price you pay.”
I’ve always believed that a tip should be awarded for something exceptional. When someone goes above and beyond the norm. Or an occasional treat such as at Christmas or on a birthday.
The idea of tipping being part of the course doesn’t fill the criteria of a tip for me. This is surely more worthy of a title as a service charge.
In fact, this is what more and more places are doing. You will now find a gratuity added at the end of food bills. Often I didn’t see that coming as it can be hidden away in the small print. (Small print = devious lack of transparency for me in these situations.)
So what if you don’t like the service and don’t want to pay a gratuity added to a bill?
I’ve previously been advised that when in the US to never not leave a tip. If I’ve suffered bad service in America then I should leave a token gesture as a tip. Maybe 5c or 10c. This should then tell the waiter that I didn’t forget the tip but consciously thought they were lousy. The fear of being frog marched back to the restaurant has admittedly prevented me from doing this.
Advice now is that if you feel the service was poor and a gratuity was added to the bill then you should speak to the manager. Then you can explain your reasons and hopefully work out a solution.
It is a well known phrase of “When in Rome do as the Romans do” and to be fair I tend to adopt that philosophy. To date I’ve always left a tip when in America even if it is begrudgingly since I think the service was sub-standard.
Tipping around the world
Around the world the concept of tipping seems to be growing although not everywhere.
In India I can’t get out of the car at the hotel before being mobbed by staff trying to take my luggage away from me. In spite of pointing out the fact that the luggage is on wheels and I don’t need or want any assistance I lose this battle almost every time. Even if something precious is in my luggage and I don’t want to lose sight of it.
In Fiji, Iceland or Japan to tip someone is a sure way to offend the server. Please don’t try it as it can cause great embarrassment.
Tipping used to be banned in communist China and the USSR. In more recent times tipping has become legal in China and I’ve certainly noticed a difference.
Various Chinese people assume that since I speak English I must be an American. They then assume that I adopt the American culture of tipping. Again this causes much unease. Particularly when a taxi driver expects me to leave his cab and not wait for him to give me change from a large bank note that I handed to him.
A similar thing happened to me a few years ago in Atlanta. My taxi bill came to $35. I didn’t have any change so handed over a $50 note. The driver took it and made no effort to give me any change. That was until I prompted him. The cheeky sod. As a result he then got a smaller tip from me than I initially intended to give him.
After reading this you might call me tight with money. Well I am from Yorkshire where there is a reputation of being careful with money.
Yet when it comes down to it it is a cultural thing. Whilst the history of tipping may be attributed to England hundreds of years ago it is not endemic in our culture. Nor is it part of many cultures around the world.
Readers may think that I’m travelling on business. Well surely that is even more strength to the argument? My company spends probably as much if not more on my business flights each year than they do on my salary. That is before you think of hotel, car hire and other travel expenses.
I’m not choosing to stay in this array of hotels because I can afford it. I’m there because someone is fortunate enough to pay my bills. However it is their money (the company) that I am spending then I have to respect that. Why should I be frivolous with my employer’s money?
Various companies have a cap on how much you can tip and claim through your expenses.
You may say that I’m getting all these free meals out. Well have you ever compared the cost of cooking for yourself to eating out? The cost of a tip on a meal out can exceed the cost of cooking for yourself or buying a salad at Wal-Mart.
I still have a house at home with bills to pay. I also have a family I have financial responsibilities for.
At the end of the day I do stick to the US custom of tipping. I respect that it is a cultural norm. However it can sometimes be with a little grievance. I believe that a tip should be earned through good service and is not a given. It should be selective and voluntary, never obligatory.
A number of Americans share the same view, as you can see by a website called bantipping.com
It is a sad state of affairs that these service workers are so lowly paid by their employers. It seems that only the restaurant/bar owners benefit in this scenario. If staff were paid fairly, as they are in the rest of the world then such cultural differences would no longer be a point of unease. Tipping in USA would become a practise of choice and not of expectation.