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Guide to tipping in the USA

A Guide to Tipping in the United States: When to Give and How Much

America’s Tipping Culture Explained

America’s tipping culture is out of control.

Every time you eat in a restaurant, every time you buy a drink at a bar, every time you grab a coffee, get a haircut, ride a taxi, buy groceries… someone expects to be tipped.

It means that, almost entirely irrespective of quality, you must assume that all services are going to cost at least 15%, 20% and sometimes even more than the ticket price.

It is the obligatory nature of tipping in the United States that non-Americans, and particularly Europeans, find so hard to comprehend. Sure, my waiter took 20 minutes to take my order, forgot the water I asked for, gave me lukewarm food and dropped a knife into my lap when clearing my plate — but I still have to pay them extra? WHAT?

I know that most American’s will sneer that this is just a re-hashed Reservoir Dogs argument. So what? To a European, accustomed to all staff being paid minimum wage regardless of the sector they work in, only tipping high quality service makes perfect sense. Routinely tipping, no matter how bad the service, seems nuts.

But I know it’s more complicated than that. While things are gradually changing for the better (here in California, for instance, a single $9 per hour minimum wage applies to everybody and a number of restaurants are doing away with tipping altogether) the system is such that tipping is necessary.

Why is that? How much should you tip? When? And what are the consequences of not tipping? Here’s a quick guide to tipping in the USA.

#1 Why Are You Encouraged to Tip?

It’s really simple. While some states set higher levels, the federal minimum wage for “tipped workers” — meaning mostly those employed in hospitality, likes waiters and bartenders — is just $2.13 per hour (that’s equivalent to £1.40 or €1.95). Worse, it hasn’t been increased FOR 25 YEARS.

It is this wage gap that is the source of most Europeans’ confusion. In the UK, for example, an annually increasing minimum wage applies to all employees across all sectors. Tipping is therefore reserved for high quality service — underperform and you’ll receive no tips.

That approach doesn’t work in the US because if everyone did it the waiting staff would be impoverished. Your tips are literally required in order for them to make a living wage. It’s a broken system, but the one that prevails (for now).

It isn’t just wages though. Tipping has developed into a complex part of the US psyche. Michael Lynn, a consumer psychologist, reckons Americans tip as a way of obtaining social approval, guilt reduction, and an overall sense of basic duty and moral obligation.

So, while tipping isn’t a legal requirement, expect a pretty poor response and some serious social disapproval from those around you if you don’t.

2# When Should You Tip?

Unfortunately there is no clear definition of a “tipped worker” — it is anyone who receives more than $30 per month in tips. This makes deciding who to tip on the basis of their receiving a low wage a real challenge. The consequence is that Americans overcompensate and tip everyone, everywhere constantly.

As a basic rule you’ll need to tip: wait staff, bartenders, taxi drivers, doormen (if they help with bags), cleaning staff, hair dressers, grocery store staff (if they assist you taking your bags to the car), tour guides, receptionists (when they help you book tours, exchange money etc – not for just checking you in) and so on. Essentially, if someone is helpful to you, you’ll probably need to consider tipping them.

#3 When Shouldn’t You Tip?

Generally speaking if you queue up to make a purchase, of say a cup of coffee or a sandwich, you’re not expected to leave a tip. That doesn’t stop there being the ubiquitous hopeful-looking tip jar beside every cash register, however. If you’re ordering 11 coffees of varying degrees of complexity you’ll want to consider adding a few dollars, though.

You’re also not expected to tip in restaurants if the check indicates that service is already included – fairly common in tourist areas or if you’re in a group larger than eight. Note that it will generally be included at a ludicrously high level of say 25%. You’re allowed to propose leaving less, but be prepared to have to explain why.

How to tip in America
Tip jars — often with accompanying witticism — are ubiquitous in the United States. Source: Flickr, “Tip Jar” by Matthew Oliphant

#4 How Much Should You Tip?

Suggested gratuities have reached really silly levels. Most receipts or PIN machines will give you the option of adding a 20%, 25% or — wait for it — a 30% tip. Generally, unless the service was truly exceptional you can lean towards the lower end and even dip towards 15% if it was just average.

Beyond wait staff, tipping becomes a little more subjective. If someone provides you momentary assistance (say carries your bags to your room, valet parks your car or pours you a drink at the bar) then a few dollars will be fine; if they provide a more complicated service (such as a haircut or taxi journey) you’re back in the 15% plus territory.

Perplexingly, only leaving 10% is considered a signal that something went horribly wrong and you were highly dissatisfied. Leave just coins and you’re just being plain rude.

#5 What are the Consequences of Not Tipping?

In restaurants it is almost never acceptable to withhold a tip; if you’re going to do that you’ll need to speak to the manager to explain what was so wrong with your experience. So, Brits thinking of avoiding an awkward conversation and just leaving a handful of coins to indicate dissatisfaction can expect a waiter to chase them down the street to ask what the problem was.

If you tip badly and you’re going to visit the same place again expect a frosty response when you return. Developing a reputation for poor tipping is likely to mark your card and result in actively poor service during future visits.

So, is America’s tipping culture out of control? Is it contributing to a perpetuation of abysmal and sub-standard wages in the hospitality sector? Does it, conversely, discourage exceptional service? Yes, yes and yes. But will I continue to follow the guidance above and tip? I want to fit in, don’t I? So of course I will.

Did you find this guide to tipping in the USA useful? What are your thoughts on America’s tipping culture? Do you always tip? How do you feel about it? Share your thoughts in the comments.


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