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The confusing world of tipping etiquette

Leaving a tip

Tess Vigeland: How much do you tip? 15 percent? 20? 25? What started out as a way to reward good service is now pretty much a given. You tip even if the wait staff pours an entire bottle of wine on your head. So if you're gonna tip no matter what, at least you've got all kinds of gadgets to help you do the math these days. But in some ways, technology has made tipping even more confusing than ever.

Here's Marketplace's Jeff Tyler.


Jeff Tyler: Let me sketch out a couple recent experiences where the credit card receipt presented me with tipping conundrums.

One happened at lunch in a deli here in Los Angeles. I made myself a salad at the salad bar and took it togo.

Cashier: Hi, sir. How are you?

Tyler: Good. How are you?

Cashier: Good, thank you. $6.50.

The credit card receipt had a blank space next to the word "TIP." Now, the person behind the counter didn't do any more work for me
than the staff at Taco Bell. So, should I leave a tip?

Here's another example: Last fall, I visited my neighborhood sushi restaurant.

Restaurant staff says "welcome" in Japanese

When the bill came, it had a tip guide printed across the bottom. I paid with credit card. When the credit card receipt arrived, it also had a tip guide. Both suggested a tip of 20 percent or 25 percent. But the corresponding dollar amounts were different.

Why? You may have guessed: One receipt calculated the tip after sales tax. I spoke to waiter Jeff Lee about the discrepancy. Though he's on the receiving end, Lee says he doesn't really care if customers tip before or after tax.

Jeff Lee: It wouldn't really be like a significant difference. Maybe like the difference of a couple cents. Maybe like, not even a dollar, most of the time.

Apparently, other customers here are equally indifferent.

Tyler: Have other consumers said anything about that?

Lee: Actually, you're the only one who's brought that issue up.

It might be unfair to make Lee the arbiter of a tip question. He grew up in South Korea.

Lee: In South Korea, there is no tip. They're offended, basically, if you tip them.

I expected the management here might be concerned about offending me with its conflicting and inflated tip guides. At the least, I thought they'd fix the discrepancy. I was wrong.

Lee: When I spoke with the head office, they said there's nothing they can do about it. It's up to the credit card machines.

Let's say good-bye to the sushi bar...

Man: Arigato gosaimasu!

...and stop by a fondue restaurant called The Melting Pot. The waiters' job here is labor intensive. They make fondue at your table.

Waiter: Alright, we're going to add a little cilantro here. Garlic. We like or we love?

Laurie: Love.

Waiter: Good answer. I don't trust people who don't like garlic.

The bill here also has a tip guide. The suggested rates range from 15 percent up to 25 percent. I asked the restaurant's director of operations, Dana Robertson, should people feel guilty about leaving less than 20 percent tip?

Dana Robertson: They should tip what they feel their service was. So, I mean, customary tip now days in restaurants I would say is between 15 and 18 percent.

National studies show the average tip is 18 percent. But service may not have much to do with it.

Mike Lynn is a professor at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University. He points to studies showing that the weather can be as influential on tips.

Mike Lynn: If it's sunny outside, you tip more. And that relationship between weather and tipping is as strong as the relationship between service and tipping.

If service isn't a significant variable, does that mean that I should tip the same rate for alcohol?

Lynn: Etiquette experts suggest that you're supposed to tip on the total bill, and that includes alcohol, wine -- all of it. Except, not taxes.

Hear that, sushi restaurant? No tipping on the tax. But in practice, many people do anyway. I asked Lynn how we ended up with this vague financial convention. No one knows for sure, he says. But there are some interesting theories.

Lynn: George Foster, who's a retired anthropologist from the University of Berkeley has argued that tipping originated in eating and drinking places as a way to prevent the workers of those places from being envious of you as a customer.

There is some evidence to support this.

Lynn: The word "tip" in many, many different languages around the world, translates to "drink money" or "money for drink." And in some Asian countries, "money for tea."

In terms of modern tipping conventions, I wondered about tips on to-go orders. Lynn says it's becoming more common. But...

Lynn: I think it's crazy and I don't do it.

At the deli where I take my salad to-go, I feel bad if I leave the tip space blank. I assumed other customers might have a similarly guilty reaction. So I expected people using credit cards would tip more than those who paid in cash. Wrong again.

Jack Elisha is the general manager of Trimana.

Jack Elisha: We receive ten times more cash as a tip in the tip jar.

Customers will pay for a $7.50 with a 10 spot and deposit the change in the tip jar. He says it happens five or six times a day.

That's one limit on technology: Credit cards don't leave you with an annoying pocket full of change just waiting for a tip jar.

In Los Angeles, I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.


Vigeland: OK so really, what do you do about tips? We want to know. You can post on our Facebook page. There you'll also find responses to that question from people across the country.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.
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Someone explain this to me. Based on the tipping convention, if I ordered a $20 plate versus a $10 plate, why should I pay more in tip for the $20 plate than I would for a $10 plate for the same effort expended by the staff to bring me any plate irrespective of its price? Let's assume the service is "average" and the plates w/ food weigh the same. Just trying to wrap my brain around this whole tipping thing.

Without a doubt tipping is one of the most over done things in American society...do any of you tippers ever consider how much more you are paying for your food than it actually cost? And to set the record straight I have work at jobs that paid only in tips...nothing else...the attitude of some of the above posters ... "Please take this into consideration next time you dine. If you can't afford to tip stay at home" is arrogant beyond belief...Bob

The tipping culture in the US is insane. You are expected to pay 20% on top of your bill for every meal...in a bar you are expected to tip a dollar per drink to the barman, for doing what? Doing his job and pouring you a drink?

It's crazy, and just makes everything more awkward all around.

Here in Europe we do not tip bar staff for pouring drinks (why would we? Hey, that's a great job you've done there, pouring that pint so well, here's some extra money!), we tip in restaurants when service is good, but it should never get to the point where it's demanded every time you eat.

I also wanted to say that regardless of whether a tip is included or not it behooves the server to do their best at all times as it is a reflection of the restaurant as well as the server, we all want guests to return. most servers care about the guest's experience

I work in california, most restaurants require you to report 100 percent of your take home tips. Which are then deducted from your paycheck. The establishment that I work for is very high end. As a server we have several people that we tip out, a sommelier, a hostess, a bartender, food runner and busboys. Therefore we take home half of our gross tips and are taxed based on our sales. Once this tax has been reported through the restaurant, it is deducted from our paycheck which is usually a paycheck for ZERO dollars therefore if you order a $200 dollar bottle of wine and do not tip on it your server will pay taxes on it and lose money as a result. Please take this into consideration next time you dine. If you can't afford to tip stay at home

Two pet peeves:
1. Calculating "suggested" tip amounts after sales tax. Not every state has sales tax, and in some states (including mine), the sales tax rate is higher for restaurant meals than for general merchandise. I should expect to leave the same tip at Chili’s irrespective of what state it is in.
2. Tips for large parties (the definition of which varies according to the establishment) added to the bill in advance. Where is the incentive for good service? More often than not, these mandatory tips are calculated after sales tax.

While I am sympathetic to the notion of servers making a living wage, that is by law ultimately the responsibility of their employers. Perhaps if more restaurants had servers share tip income -- and its accompanying incentives for good customer satisfaction -- with other support staff such as cooks and dishwashers, the restaurant experience would be better all around.

I think that servers should be tipped 20% or more. 15% is offensive. I can see how people would be iffy about take-out orders and the like, but in those cases you should use your best judgement. It takes a rare person with special skills to be a server and in that case they should not be "rewarded" but compensated for that skill. I believe the world would be an entirely different place if everyone had a food service job! People would be more considerate, patient, and generous!! Give your server the benefit of the doubt! They want to please you to the fullest because they want your 20% tip. If they mess up it's most likely out of they're control!

Somehow, it makes no sense to be expected to tip "proportionately" on a bottle of wine...what if it happened to be a $200.00 bottle? Does the waiter do anything more than open/decant it? Certainly, nothing to merit a tip on $200.00!

I cannot believe that you went through this entire story without mentioning the fact that most servers do not get paid even the federal minimum wage--but instead are paid the princely sum of $2.13/hr. Granted, there are some states out there which have their own laws regarding the wages of tipped employees, but you could have at least mentioned the fact that most servers are almost entirely dependent upon the moods and whims of the people they serve for their livelihood. The way the story runs, it sounds as if tips are little more than a favor granted to servers, rather than their primary means of support. Please, the next time you do a story like this, be sure to point out this salient fact.

I'd like to know what people tip for motel rooms. Since you don't usually even see the staff who clean your room, do most anyway?

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