Tipping – why is it so easy for Americans to follow, yet so muddling for the rest of us?

This topic has me scratching my head. I still don’t get it and it leads to far too many uncomfortable moments. The many charts and tables that people have produced in their blogs and articles don’t really get to the root of it. Why is it done? And most importantly (and am I alone in thinking this?) can these waitresses/maids/bellboys not just be paid a decent wage? Surely it’s better in Aus/NZ and to a greater extent Japan, where the price is fully inclusive of service.

Here in Britain I am comfortable enough with the rules. I take a taxi, I round up the fare (10% ish). In a restaurant, 10% if the service is good (and to be honest, if it’s not great as well, because I hate making a fuss). Haircut? Add a pound or two. Hotel staff? Rarely. Bar staff? Never. In many cafes, or on a tour bus, there is a small unassuming pot left for tips, and I will put in a pound or two depending on my satisfaction.

With the exception of restaurant staff, who are often outrageously underpaid and in some cases left to make up the minimum wage through tips, a gratuity payment is seen as a thank you for good service, and is normally received in that spirit. I will never forget tipping the taxi driver a pound for a ยฃ14 journey in Manchester and hearing his gracious thanks and appreciation. Having just returned from a year in New York it was such a pleasant change and a real welcome home. I can only imagine the reaction of a NY cabbie to the same tip.

Our time in NY was an education in tipping. Around Christmas we took advice from many people about tips for our building staff; the doormen, handymen and mailmen needed something. Given that we had only been there for 3 months, it was felt that we could pay them a lower rate – $30 to $50 each, making a total of $500. Yes, that’s right. We calculated that if everyone followed this etiquette the guys in the building would have collected around $250,000 between them. I heard from a work colleague whose husband was a doorman just how little these men earned and how much they relied on Christmas to boost their pay packet. I learned that for valet parking you need to tip the guy who takes your car AND the guy who brings it back; a complete no-no for a European, who tips for good service, to tip before a service is even delivered. And I won’t forget the waiter in a NY diner who asked what he had done wrong when we only tipped him 15%!

But I do get concerned when I see over-tipping, where people (and it is usually, but not always Americans) give a payment that is grossly out of line with local earnings. I sat on the wall outside Machu Picchu for a while and watched as a young shoe shine boy received $1 for his work from several customers. Then he got a $10 bill from one elderly American man, and a moment later he chased another tourist when he only got a dollar again. I’ve seen this in Africa too, where local staff received tips from a British group equivalent to three of four months’ wages. Understandable, yes. Correct? I don’t feel it is.

Brits are renowned as the worst tippers, and I’m probably a living example of this curse to the world’s service sector. But am I really wrong in believing that a tip should be a sign of gratitude, of satisfaction for a service well delivered? I enjoy tipping freely when I am happy with a service, but do not expect to make up a salary of an employee by default. If it is fully expected that we should leave a particular amount, why not add it to the bill? And if it’s discretionary, then why gripe if my discretion is different from your expectation?

A final word for the taxi driver who collected us in Tasmania. When the meter read $9.30 my natural reaction was to give him $10, but he chirped up “Let’s make it $9”, and with a smile too. He clearly hadn’t worked in New York.

Author Information

Freelance travel writer

16 Responses to “Tipping – why is it so easy for Americans to follow, yet so muddling for the rest of us?”

  1. Rush #

    in Switzerland if the hair cutter is over impressed with you, he will tip the customer!!

    September 3, 2009 at 7:57 pm
  2. Zoe #

    The problem is that in different places people are paid different wages.

    In Australia, customer service staff aka waiters and bartenders are paid minimum wage. The government sets the bar at around $18 per hour, ranging up to $30/hour for Sundays. However, even if you still work a full working week on minimum wage you are still below the poverty line so tips are appreciated.

    In the USA by comparison, service staff around paid around $3 per hour, up to $6. NO ONE can live on that much. are you serious?? THAT is why tips are no just appreciated, but expected.

    In the UK, staff are paid maybe 8 quid an hour (been a while since i worked there) again, its not exactly enough to have a good life on. And yes, brits are the worst tippers in the world, hands down.

    No matter how you rationalise it, service staff are spending their time on you. I think its only right to leave a token of your appreciation. Its one of the most thankless jobs in the world.

    September 6, 2009 at 5:43 am
  3. Andy Jarosz #

    Hi Zoe,

    Thanks for visiting and for posting your thoughts. I agree it's a thankless job as a waiter/hotel service employee. Long hours, little pay and a lot of ungrateful customers. (I had several bar jobs in younger days and I remember them being some of the hardest work I've done).

    The problem for a traveller is knowing what goes on in each country so that we can abide by the "rules" wherever we are. The disparities in wages that you describe is huge; and people don't know about it when they get their meal/drink/bag carried.

    I guess I have two questions: my first is a wider one for business worldwide, but particularly aimed at the US – if tips are so much expected, and effectively pay the wages of the employee, why not add it on the bill? That way there is no uncertainty or discomfort for the customer or the employee. If it's left as discretionary, then you will always get different tipping practices, according to culture, levels of perception of service offered, and even the amount of change in the pocket of the customer.

    And my second is this: if you are unhappy with the service (slow, rude or unhelpful), should you, as the customer, exercise your right to tip or not tip according to your satisfaction? Or should you take into account that the server is effectively working for nothing and that you are responsible for giving them a living wage?

    A thorny issue that will never get resolved.

    September 6, 2009 at 8:05 am
  4. Andy Geoghegan #

    Good post – as a Brit I get very confused. I'm happy with the UK system which you described perfectly.

    I once tipped a cabbie in Vegas $1 on top of a $5 fare and he threw it back at me – I was dumbstruck and put the buck back in my wallet!

    I too hate it when tipping is expected, I find it very rude.

    September 6, 2009 at 8:51 am
  5. David Whitley #

    Ooh, you've hit one of my major bugbears there…

    I've blogged about it before (http://bit.ly/YZ98a) but to summarise: tipping is nothing but a nasty add-on charge that has become socially acceptable in some societies (especially the US).

    Instead of trying to work out the intricacies of how much to tip and for what, I find it easier to adopt a policy of never tipping. The reward for good service is repeat custom and good word of mouth, and if something says "service not included", it's clearly a lie,

    September 24, 2009 at 8:04 am
  6. Mark H #

    As an Australian, I have struggled with tipping regimes as well, especially in the US. Apart from restaurant meals, good cafes and rounding up a cab fare, tipping is rarely done in Australia. In the US everyone has their hand out and it is difficult not only to work out who to tip but also what the roughly appropriate amount is. As Andy said, I have seen some terible situations in Africa and South America with grossly inappropriate tipping changing the fabric of a place (though it does make Americans popular and sought after!!). As an Australian, I am still confused as to why doing your job shouldn't entail being paid reasonably for it and not have waiters on US$3 per hour – surely the cost of eating there should entail all the elements of getting the food to you (or should I tip the farmer for growing the vegetables so beautifully).

    October 1, 2009 at 1:37 am
  7. Andy Jarosz #

    Agree with you Mark – if it's part of their salary (implied or otherwise), I can't get my head round why it's not included in the price of the meal.

    October 1, 2009 at 8:54 am
  8. Ren #

    I'm gonna be so screwed when I go to the US/UK/etc., then. I almost never tip here in the Philippines, and when I do, I almost never calculate 10% (or whatever).

    Here in the Philippines, many restaurants have a 12% service charge that's already calculated into the bill. For restaurants that don't, I usually leave just some change (like if a meal is PHP 112 and I give PHP 120, the PHP 8 becomes my tip), or nothing more than PHP 20. And nobody makes a stink about it.

    October 7, 2009 at 7:52 am
  9. Andy Jarosz #

    Thanks for posting Ren and don't worry about it. In the UK you'll get by with a smile, good manners and whatever change you want to leave. It's in the US you'll need to follow the 15% rule or expect some dirty looks.

    October 7, 2009 at 8:08 am
  10. Dave and Deb #

    We Canadians are just as bad as the U.S. When Eating out a tip of 15% is average but 20% is expected. Especially in the larger cities.
    We tip the cab drivers, the doormen, we even tip at the coffee shop.
    It is a little out of control and of course, I have guilt all of the time about tipping. I always feel that I have to tip.
    It is so much of a part of Canadian and American society. Dave and I were waiters in college too so we tend to have a soft spot for good service.
    I do enjoy the break from tipping when we are traveling though.

    October 16, 2009 at 11:31 pm
  11. When I was still in school I worked as a waitress in NYC (at Patsy’s) and whenever we heard European accents (Brits, Germans, etc) they automatically got crappy service, because we KNEW they wouldn’t tip nicely anyway, so there wasn’t a point really to stress ourselves.The Japanese, on the other hand, followed their guidebook advice religiously and tipped nicely.
    I tip everywhere (unless it’s a chain food court type place), because even in those countries where tipping less common, a tip is still very much appreciated. And because we always leave a little bit extra, our local mom-and-pop ramen shop treats us like a royal family when we show up for dinner. I guess in this economy, every little bit matters, even in countries like Japan, where tipping is not the norm.

    November 20, 2009 at 11:20 pm
  12. Hi Anna
    That explains why we got such variable service when we lived in NYC (and we did tip well). It’s sad but inevitable that people will go the extra mile when there is a clear reward as a result of their efforts. But that is a natural consequence of the system; it doesn’t justify it.
    Why don’t people tip the hotel receptionist? The pilot? The subway driver? The ticket inspector? How has society decided who is worthy of a tip and who isn’t?
    Ultimately tipping has been used as a tool to drive salaries away from the employers and onto the customers. And that’s where I have a problem. You have demostrated the inequality of the system. Surely it’s not too much for all staff to be paid fairly, and for the cost of this to be included in the bill. Customers will then be able to enjoy their food and the attentiveness of the staff with no need to add extra.
    And staff who are treated fairly (separate from being paid fairly) WILL respond and provide top service. Japan is great evidence of this, and I hope it does not get poisoned by the tipping culture.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences of this one Anna. A great debate, and one that will be around for many years to come.

    November 21, 2009 at 8:19 am
  13. Melissa #

    Americans tip because it’s in our culture to do so. As young people, many of us had jobs washing cars, waiting or bussing tables, and running cars (valet). We know how nice it is to get a nice tip, and we’re more then happy to do the same.

    10% is customary, if the service is bad then only the change. In New York, I saw some restaurants who suggested 15% as the minimum tip for “okay” service, and 17%-20% foe good to great service. The young man in who asked what he had done wrong had probably become accustomed to expecting and receiving higher tips, and honestly thought he had done something bad.

    There seems to be a push to tip more since the cost of living has gone up, but I don’t feel that I need to tip more. After all, I’m short on money too.

    March 15, 2010 at 11:40 am
  14. I worked as a bartender and waiter throughout Uni in the US and have now traveled the world for about a year and a half…in my experience, the service in the US is usually far superior as far as restaurants are concerned (not really as applicable for quick services like valet and the such). Though I agree that it’s a bit ridiculous that servers are paid such low wages so that the fee is passed onto diners, I feel that it greatly improves the service. I really found that in Australia and the UK in particular the service was often far inferior to a similar restauranting experience Stateside! So, perhaps that makes up for the fact that you have to tip?! ๐Ÿ™‚

    And as a note – as a server, 10 percent was a bad tip. That meant you thought the service was barely acceptable. 15 is pretty standard these days…and 18-20% if they were great IMO ๐Ÿ™‚

    May 14, 2010 at 11:16 pm
  15. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Shannon. It made me think – maybe the US expectations of service are different to ours, based on your experiences of the high standards you’re used to.
    For us in the UK, service can be good, and can be awful. But ask around and I reckon most Brits would take a ‘good enough’ level of service with a standard 10% tip.
    I worked in several bar jobs and it always made my day when I received a tip or a free drink from a customer, so I do sympathise with the server’s wish for good tipping. I suspect though, that this is a cultural thing that is very much dependent on where you’re from. An endless topic for debate though ๐Ÿ™‚

    May 17, 2010 at 12:57 pm
  16. Nicole #

    Living in Richmond, Virginia, a smaller American city than say New York or Las Vegas, the only place I ever really find myself tipping is at restaurants or hotels. At restaurants, I usually give a 15% tip for average service, 20% tip for good service. Many of my friends think 15% is too little, but that has always been the standard that my parents and many others have used. I can understand using tips to make up the rest of a worker’s wage because, for the most part, it makes people work harder and be nicer so that they will receive a tip. I agree that Americans can get a little crazy with tips and I would imagine that in places like New York, where it seems many people are quite wealthy, the tipping can get extravagant. In the hotels that I stay at, often pretty good but not fancy chains, there are no bellboys or valet drivers (and if valet is an option, we don’t use it). The only people there for us to tip are the maids. Many times, when choosing a fancier hotel or perhaps even just a hotel in a larger city like New York or Las Vegas, tipping just comes with the package. Most places in the United States, you can carry your own luggage on carts up to your room and park your own car. If you want the luxuries of having those things done for you, I think it is important to leave a good (but not crazy) tip unless you experience bad service. In Richmond, there are very few taxis and I don’t think I have ever even been in one except in other countries. They are only really used to get people from the airport to their hotel. So, if you do more yourself you will have less to tip and it really isn’t all that bad. If you want simple things like these done for you, just leave a small but decent tip.

    August 12, 2010 at 5:00 pm