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Tipping in America

Two Englishmen walk into a bar. A restaurant actually. On Thanksgiving Day, 2010, two redcoats ran up a $250 check at a high-end San Francisco restaurant and left their waitress, a friend of mine, a $10 tip. That’s 4%. My friend politely asked them if there was anything wrong with either the food or the service, and when they replied everything was indeed fine and good, she informed them: “for future reference, it’s customary to tip 18% in America, 20% in San Francisco”.

This encounter has a way of making both my American and European friends gasp. Americans are astonished at the explosive badness of the tip, while Europeans are astounded at the waitress’ forwardness.

For whatever reason (and there are many) Americans are known for their gratuitous culture, and few behaviors can tarnish a reputation like being known as tight-wad. American tipping habits are so ingrained that, when abroad, we oftentimes cannot bring ourselves to tip the (always lower) local custom, even though it would be in our own self interest. Expedia.com, an online travel company, routinely confirms this through their annual international poll of hoteliers, which–without fail–puts Yanks at the top of the tip-heap (somewhat less flattering is the “worst-dressed” contest, at which we also excel).

On to the reasons. Most explanations begin with the irrefutable fact that service-industry wages and benefits are, on average, far less in America than in Europe. From here, opinions diverge into two camps. The first sees American tipping culture simply as an expression of gratitude, or at the very least, the legacy of a frontier society’s organic response to life with few institutions advocating on behalf of the working class (and a natural revulsion to selfishness in a land of plenty). The second explanation is that American employers are too greedy to pay decent wages and American workers are too dumb to put up a fight, so we tip each other instead to make up the difference. The first camp explains American tipping as an expression of populist generosity, while the second on plutocratic greed and proletarian stupidity. These explanations aren’t simply different, they’re opposite.

From my own experience, Europeans, fall into the second category, believing American-style tips to be a function of greed (an English friend of mine once scoffed at the mere suggestion of generosity playing any roll at all). But to interpret a custom which literally involves handing complete strangers piles of cash as somehow related to greed is no small task, and yet they do it by reasoning that tip-culture is not a response to low wages, but the cause. In this view, Americans are complicit in their own exploitation by paying each other in the form of tips rather than demanding better wages from their employer. By not tipping, or by tipping poorly, some Europeans think they’re striking a blow against injustice. Thus, the European maintains preconceived notions of both American stupidity and greed, while stroking their superiority complex and hanging onto their cash. You’ll have to excuse me, but if this isn’t a petty and cheap self-serving rationalization, I don’t know what is.

As to the fair question of why do some workers get tips while others do not? I’d suggest proximity to be the cause. The banker and the baron may well go their entire lives without speaking to a coal miner, but the bartender they must look in the eyes, and both guilt and fraternity have a way of administering themselves through the retina.

Ultimately, the best reason to tip like an American while in America is simply because, when abroad, one should respect other people’s culture. But because it can be confusing, and because it might not always seem to make sense, here are the basics:

  • 18% good, 15% bad.
  • Gratuity is not “often” included in the bill (as many European websites claim). In fact, it almost never is. The exceptions are for large restaurant parties (usually six or more), banquet events, and hotel room service.
  • A bad waiter doesn’t always merit a bad tip. Depending on the establishment, a waiter might “tip-out” a half-dozen other people such as bussers, hostesses, bartenders, food runners, and wine servers. Consider that when you stiff the waiter, you’re stiffing an entire team.
  • When at the bar, tipping begins at $1 per drink. For large orders, especially those including lots of specialty cocktails, be prepared to dig a bit deeper.
  • If you can’t afford to tip accordingly, stay home. You can’t afford to go out.

UPDATE: Check out this excellent international tipping calculator!