What Tipping Says About Us

Moneyologist: Is It Ever OK Not to Tip a Waiter?

It's just like your mom told you about dates: You can tell a lot about someone from how they treat (and tip) the waiter or waitress.

"How you tip says a lot about who you are," Steve Dublanica, author of two best-selling books on waiting tables, wrote in "Keep the Change." "It reveals your attitude about money, how you spend it, your views on labor and class, whether you're generous or stingy, in the know or just plain ignorant."

"Most people do not tip to reward the quality of service," he wrote in his blog, WaiterRant, named after his first book. "They tip for psychological reasons like fear, guilt, empathy or acting out a personality disorder. "

Studies on the psychology of tipping are sometimes contradictory but in general bear him out. Extraverts may tip more because they like server attention and interaction. Neurotics tip in fear of server misbehavior. And psychotics tip (or not) however they damn well please for Machiavellian reasons of their own, according to one study.

Michael Lynn of Cornell University, the go-to university for hospitality studies, has conducted more than 20 studies on tipping. In one often-cited study, he found a correlation between the level of extraversion and neuroticism and the number of service roles tipped in various countries, with the U.S. scoring high.

Depending on the Kindness of Strangers

However, as any service person will tell you, people tip for many reasons, and economists struggle to find method to the madness. As Lynn wrote, "Tips are not legally required and are not given until after service is completed, so they are not necessary to ensure good current service."

The U.S. minimum wage for tipped employees is $2.13 an hour, unchanged since 1991. One 2011 study estimated annual tips in the U.S. amount to $45 billion supplementing this wage. An Internal Revenue Service study found that waitstaff collect 70 percent of the tips in America in serving 130 million restaurant meals a day.

Studies have found that waitstaff can increase their tips by various behaviors, including touching a customer on the shoulder, squatting next to the table when writing up orders, drawing smiley faces on the check and giving candy. The last practice increases the tip 15 percent to 23 percent.

Even the weather can affect tips, with just the recounting of a sunshiny day increasing tips by 5 percent according to a Temple University study.

No Tipping, Please

Some restaurant owners, painfully aware of these whims, have instituted no-tipping policies. "You're not having to judge another human being as a number," Gabriel Frem said of the policy at Brand 158, his trendy Los Angeles restaurant. "You're not in direct conflict with the compensation model of the person serving you."

Zagat, which conducts annual surveys on aspects of dining, in 2013 asked diners their opinion of no-tipping policies but higher tabs. Only 21 percent said they like the idea, 34 percent were unsure, 28 percent flatly hated the concept and 17 percent liked the idea but only in high end restaurants.

Zagat also found that bad service still affects tips, with 43 percent of diners tipping 5 percent less, 29 percent tipping 10 percent less, 7 percent wouldn't change the amount of the tip and 6 percent wouldn't leave any tip for bad service.

The National Restaurant Association feels tipping is here to stay. "Along with flexible work schedules, tipping is what makes a restaurant server an attractive profession and makes the restaurant industry an industry of choice for millions of Americans," said Scott DeFife, executive vice president of policy and government affairs. "Our research continues to indicate that the vast majority of consumers take a positive view of the practice and custom of tipping for service that has evolved in our industry."

Strong Views

An online poll on emilypost.com agrees about the permanency of tipping in the U.S. It found 51 percent agreed with this: "Tipping has always been part of our culture and will remain so. The amount of the tip is always up to the customer. People just like to complain." A quarter agreed that banning tipping was a good idea, and 20 percent said they would stop tipping or avoid tipping situations if the expected tip percentage continued to rise.

Just a few decades ago, 10 percent was considered a fair tip, but now 15 percent to 20 percent is considered standard for adequate service, Emilypost.com says, offering recommendations on what to tip other service people. Zagat found that the average tip rose from 19 percent in 2013 to 19.3 percent in 2014.

The discourse can become heated, with customers ranting on Yelp (YELP) about bad servers and servers outing bad tippers on social media. Waitstaff are naming names, both the famous and the unknown, including Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, who allegedly left a 20-cent tip on a $61.56 tab. Celebrities who are notoriously bad tippers include Michael Jordan, Bill Cosby, Mick Jagger, Madonna and Rachael Ray. The most generous include President Barack Obama, Charlie Sheen, David Beckham, Drew Barrymore and Johnny Depp. Draw your own conclusions.

Dublanica wrote that 80 percent of his former customers were nice but posited 20 percent were likely "socially maladjusted psychopaths" and in their unguarded moments "often let their hidden prejudices, beliefs and character flaws slip Freudianly to the surface." In that light, he offers one final tip: "Tips spelled backward is spit!"
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