Page last updated at 11:50 GMT, Saturday, 7 March 2009

The mechanics of tipping US-style

Paying something extra to the person who has provided you with a service is common in the US, but working out who gets a tip and how much can be confusing, as Kevin Connolly reveals.

A man holding US dollars
Tipping is customary in restaurants with table service in the US

Hi. My name is Kevin and I am going to be your reporter today.

I will be offering you a very long extended metaphor. How would you like that - well done, or really, really overdone?

While you are choosing, maybe I could bring you some adjectives - rhadamanthine, mellifluous, torpid, porcine. We have got them all.

And if, when our business is done and I have brought you a couple of adverbs speedily and obligingly, you feel moved to leave me some small financial consideration then we will both be richer.

I will actually be richer, and you will have been given, well, the opportunity to give.

Now, I know you have already paid me to write this, but this is not about the overall deal. It is about you and me and the relationship we have been building up over the last 45 seconds.

Do you not remember those adjectives?

Superior service

The world really starts to look like a different place when you spend a few months exposed to the world of American service with the laser-beam intensity of its hurried charm.

Waitress serving food
In a restaurant the customary tip is 20%

Americans think it is the most natural thing in the world to pay for a service, at the point where you receive it, person-to-person.

First, they reason, it keeps whoever is doing the serving on their toes.

Your French Toast will be Frencher, your upside-down cake more comprehensively inverted when someone knows their income depends on it.

There is something in that, by the way. I have waited half an hour for a receipt in communist Poland while watching two young waiters playing football with a polystyrene cup.

And it is widely recognised that most people working in the service industries in America are underpaid by their employer on the assumption that you will be taking up the slack when it comes to tip time.

Whenever I object that this system means that almost every transaction you undertake in America is booby-trapped with social awkwardness, I am shouted down.

'Kind of journey'

Everyone knows, I am assured, the scale of charges.

Montage image (L) a New York taxi, (R) a pilot
Who decided which professions should attract tips?

A dollar for a doorman, $2 (£1.40) for a shoe-shine or a taxi-driver, double the sales tax for a server in a cafe, $1 for a drink in a bar, 20% in a full-service restaurant and so on.

But there is of course very little logic to the whole business of who we tip and who we do not.

Obviously, no-one slips their heart surgeon or airline pilot something a little extra at the end of an operation or a flight, because they earn too much for that to make sense. But why tip a waiter and not a shop assistant?

Or the driver of a taxi, but not the driver of a bus?

It is probably because historically there were certain transactions only open to the rich, including having your hair cut by someone who was not a blood relation and going to a restaurant.

And if it were as simple as that, I would be happy enough, but of course it is not.

Any server worth their salt is going to try to persuade you that the two of you have been on a kind of journey together through your meal which can only be properly consummated with cash.

Sometimes if you are British this will begin with a moment of awkwardness.

A young man in Jackson, Mississippi, once recognised my accent: "Like the Beatles, right?" he said and asked nervously if I knew about "the tipping thing".

I confirmed that rumours of it had reached our side of the Atlantic, but had been received with widespread disbelief.

Often a server will squat on their haunches to give them eye contact as they would with a recalcitrant toddler and then act as though you are co-conspirators in a plot to give you a heart attack: "Have we saved room for dessert?"

It is not confined to the restaurant trade either. I know a hotel in Manhattan which employs a team of doormen to get your cases from taxi to lobby.

They work in the manner of medieval peasants passing buckets of water from hand to hand to fight a fire. The idea is that you are meant to tip each of them, although of course it would be cheaper to buy new suitcases and clothes after checking in.

Avoiding disfavour

And to me there is something un-American at the heart of the whole idea of tipping.

Think back to the restaurant. It does not take any more effort or skill to serve a $10 bottle of wine than it does to serve one that costs 100. Multiplying the service charge by 10 is a kind of a private, self-imposed wealth tax, rather than a tip.

And yet somehow when the bill appears, most of us, most of the time, do add that little something, or indeed that rather substantial something, all to avoid the fleeting disfavour of someone whose professional charm has passed briefly over us like intermittent illumination from a distant lighthouse.

Not me of course.

I really feel we have been on a journey together here and I hope you do too.

So if there is no other part of speech I can bring you, a last thought-provoking compound adjective for instance, I will leave you.

You have an outstanding day now!

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 7 March, 2009 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

A selection of your comments on US tipping etiquette and your embarrassing tipping-related anecdotes:

On one occasion in a very upscale restaurant in San Francisco, the waiter became too attentive - almost doting- to the lovely ladies at an adjacent table. There was no service from then on. At the end of the evening, I left what I though appropriate - a penny. Upon leaving the restaurant I was pursued by waiter and Maitre D' and had to explain to them that I had left enough because the service had not been worth two cents. I was worried it would come to blows after that!!
Allan, Vancouver, Canada

You should have added a PayPal donation button at the end of this article.
Ryan, PA, USA

As a server at a popular restaurant that gets a check for $0.00 every two weeks (our tiny wage doesn't even cover our taxes and we usually end up paying hundreds of dollars a year come tax season) it just doesn't make sense to me that people have a hard time with tipping. You should understand customs wherever you are and if you go out to eat you should expect to pay a little extra.
Tony, Boise, Idaho, USA

My elderly grandfather, on a transit flight via the US, had arranged for the airline to provide a wheelchair to move him between planes. When the porter discovered that my grandfather didn't plan on tipping him, he ordered him out of the wheelchair and made him walk!
Mathew, Wellington, New Zealand

I don't speak for any other industry. But serving is hard work dealing with miserable people. Long hours on your feet in terrible shoes. Tipping someone in the service industry is demonstrating that they are a person of value. You don't tip servants, you do tip people.

Karen, Calgary Canada

I had the converse sort of cultural confusion during a sabbatical year spent in Bristol: was I supposed to tip the person who cut my hair, for example? But here's why I really don't follow the British outrage/disgust about US tipping: I mean, your restaurant prices have a service charge implicitly added in, right?

Joe, Portland, Oregon, USA

Tipping is indeed byzantine in the US. But after having sampled what passes for "service" in London, Paris, and Munich over the past 10 years of business travel, I will take, and handsomely tip, my US waiters, shoe shines, etc. any day.
George Collins, Weston, Florida

I only really care about tipping when I'm at a place that I intend on returning to. The culture of tipping here is such that bartenders, waiters, and doormen do take notice when receiving a nice tip, and I usually receive much more friendly, prompter service on return visits to places that I have left a decent tip.
Matt, Chicago, USA

When in the US on a visa that did not allow me to work I was always a little annoyed that my girlfriend, who worked as a waitress, would come to the pub with a purse stuffed full of $1 bills. Earning $300 on a busy evening is not just scraping a living!
Rob, UK

I work in a Medieval themed restaurant, where you pay a rather hefty price to get in. All in all, I depend on tips since I am paid only 3.25 an hour. Many people assume that, since I am costumed, I must make a nice salary. This is clearly not the case. I find that most Americans understand the necessity of tipping, although most Europeans tip far below the norm.
Justin, New Jersey, USA

I have a nephew who works in an upscale restaurant in Whistler, a ski resort a couple of hours north of Vancouver. He always takes great pleasure in telling me that the worst tippers in the world are the English!
Greg, Vancouver, Canada

In Australia it's really only customary to tip at higher-end restaurants, and I have to admit I would be completely baffled in the US. I believe that minimum wage should cover living expenses, which would make tips nice, but not necessary.
Kate, Australia

As a waiter, I pay my bills, tuition, rent, and eat with money earned from tips. The hourly wage earned basically is negated by the tax on the income, and I hardly ever see a paycheck. Keep in mind next time you leave a tip, this person who has been doing their best to put food on your table needs to be able to put food on their own as well.
Shaun, Boulder, CO, USA

I used to subscribe to the line that only by tipping can you ensure good service until I visited Japan. Tipping is unheard of yet staff are well trained, courteous and respectful of customers. All accomplished without putting on the pretense of being your new best friend.
Michael, London, U.K.

I used to work in a supermarket, why shouldn't I get 10% of the cost of your shopping for putting it through the till? £4.17 isn't exactly a brilliant wage!
Mark Styles, North Shields

As the mother of a one-time server (who was paid $2.35/hr by the restaurant) yes, you know I tip servers, and tip them well if the service is attentive, knowledgeable, and prompt. Some of these servers are working their way through grad school. Others are trying to put food on the table for their kids. And in these trying economic times, tipping is just sharing a bit.

Sherry white, Holland USA

I have walked away from dinner, paying for food but not tipping because quality of food was just unacceptable. Waiter who wasn't also too helpful in restaurant, walked after me 2 blocks in NYC, loudly demanding the tip... Now they have calculated tip suggestions printed ready to a bill; say 15%, 18%, 20% of total amount. What do you pick from those, 20%?
Paul, Tallinn, Estonia

Having a drink in a bar in Greenwich Village I stood for 30 minutes drinking as no stools were available... on asking for my bill ($45) I left 50, and said keep the change. I was then rebuked and made to feel miserly until I handed over another $5. I was so angry but made to feel very small in front of my girlfriend. It is outrageous that we should be told how much to give, and not how much we want to give.
Tony D, Herts UK

I tend to avoid visiting the same restaurant too often lest I am recognized as that "cheap foreigner" whose tips leave something to be desired. This way I can share a little European culture with as many American waiters as possible... and nothing happens to my order on the way to my table.
Anna, Los Angeles, USA

Back in 1959, on my first ever trip to New York, I took a taxi up-town for a total cost of $4.50. I paid $5.00 believing that the 10% plus tip was enough. I left the cab and as I was walking away, the cabbie opened the door and threw the 50 cents at me, cursing me for my mean behaviour. But then, all NY cabbies are the same, or so I have found out in my following trips. So, beware!
George Handley, Lausanne, Swizerland

The thing I find difficult about tipping in restaurants is it seems to be expected even when the service is a shambles. It used to be 15% for excellent service. Now it's 15% for them turning up, and above that if the service is impressive... I'm fighting back. Good service will get 10-20%. Anything else, nothing.
Paul Johnson, San Jose, CA (UK ex-pat)

Kevin forgot the one more recent tipping phenomenon in the US that defeats its own purpose: The pre-added tip. Really popular in Florida is the trick where 13, 15, 17% has already been added to your bill. You can ask to have them change the amount, but the effort, the confrontation, the shame means they know you will not.
David Huntley, Canada, ex UK

It's easy - just double the tax on your bill - and make sure you tip! Servers rely on those tips to make a decent wage.
Jim Hodges, Seattle

I was once staying at an all inclusive resort in Mexico (don't forget the idea is to "leave your wallet behind!") and watched amazed as an American guy effectively bought every drink he had by tipping the barman every time he got another Margarita!
Geoff Rone, Burgess Hill, UK

I find that most other service workers want/expect tips as well. The coffee maker at Starbucks, the guy who delivers the furniture, the person who grooms my dogs, the kid who helps take the groceries to the car, etc. It's beginning to get a bit out of hand.

Lisa Whitley, Seattle, WA

I am as confused about tipping as my sisters and brothers in the Isles. I think an employer is responsible for paying the full price of what a job is worth, no less than a liveable wage. And that employees must give the best service possible to keep their job.
M.R. HALEY, Oregon USA

Even if you think tipping is great practice, it often isn't cross-cultural. I can always remember the man who refused a tip in south-east Asia. And then there was the woman who ran after me, thinking I left the money by accident. Slightly embarrassing.

S C , Newcastle, Staffs, UK

I've received far better service in places where there is no tipping. And the fact that tipping enables employers to pay a lower minimum wage is criminal. It poisons the relationship so that the customer now feels personally responsible for the employee's well-being.
Dana, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

I felt strange in Europe not tipping, it felt like saying to someone that I didn't really value their time/work. Then again, they probably all got paid enough to live on their wages alone. That simply is not true for a significant portion of service jobs in the US.
Matt, Ohio, US

While it did indeed originate as a sort-of "self-imposed wealth tax" as you say, it has developed, as you eloquently point out, into a complex system of who-deserves-what. But after experiencing service in London versus major American cities, and I say this with affinity toward your country and people, I'll take an American Denny's any day!
Andrea, Minneapolis, MN, U.S.A.

In Europe waiters can be more occupied with discussion of the latest soccer results than serving you - that would never happen here in US. So even so I don't feel for the American tipping system, I will have to admit that it works.
Jacob Koch, Hoboken, NJ, USA

As a bartender myself... we have great memories... like poker players, and we remember if you stiffed us the last time you were in, and you will wait more than twice as long as others for everything you need.
Chris, Ontario, Canada

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