Do We Really Tip Based on the Waiter’s Service?

(Photo: Oli Shaw)

For whatever reason, tipping is a subject that always seems to fascinate. Maybe it’s because it represents a sort of shotgun marriage between economic behavior and “normal” behavior (i.e., profit-maximizing and altruism). In that light, a reader named Joshua Talley raises an interesting question. I am interested to hear your replies.

I’ve been a waiter for years.  I pride myself on providing prompt, professional service.  But I’ve always wondered how much the quality of service impacts the tip. Despite the notion that the tip reflects the quality of service, it seems likely to me that aside from instances of extremely good or extremely poor service, most people simply tip what they normally tip.  For instance, some people are 10 percenters, many are 15 percenters and some are 20 percenters, etc., and it takes either very good or very poor service to change this.  Am I right?

As a waiter in an upscale restaurant in Venice Beach, Ca., I’ve always suspected that the price of wine rarely reflects the quality of a bottle, so I appreciated your wine episode.  Given that I’m not a sommelier, a tenet of mine is that if a customer really wants my opinion of the nuances of a particular wine, then they don’t really know much about wine themselves, so whatever I tell them is relatively safe and the power of suggestion will likely make them recognize whatever qualities I attribute to the wine in question.

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  1. Seminymous Coward says:

    His guess is quite accurate in my case. It takes force of will for me to deviate from my norm, and that requires an extreme in quality.

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  2. Blaise Pascal says:

    Speaking for myself, his observation rings true. I’m usually very methodical in my tipping, doubling the (8%) sales tax to get the tip amount. I’m more likely to tip higher for good service, usually by rounding up, than to tip lower for bad service, but these are the exceptions than the rule.

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  3. Adam W says:

    I think this waiter is dead on. I’m typically @ a 20% tipper. My mom raised six kids on waitress’ tips, so I’m very cognizant of what tipping means to the server. Give me really great service and It’ll go up, give me really poor service and it’ll go down, but anything that is only marginally better or worse doesn’t have much of an effect.

    This does bring me to a reverse question that I’ve never been able to figure out. Is tipping a low amount an effective way of communicating dissatisfaction with service? I’ve always felt when I tip well the server will think “Hey I must have done a great job.” whereas when I don’t tip well the server will instead think “That guy was just a cheapskate.”

    I’ve thought of having a system where I lay out the server’s tip when I first sit down, and as the service impresses me (or depresses me), the amount is increased, decreased. Kind of a real time service feedback notification. This sounds a bit difficult to implement though, and I’m pretty sure my wife would die of embarrassment if I tried.

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    • AssortedPens says:

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • bearmancartoons says:

      I solved this issue once. We had a surly waiter who only came to take our order and bring our check. The bus boy made sure we had water, bread, brought our meals, etc.

      The bill came to $40. I left $.25 on the table for the waiter and went up to the bus boy in front of the waiter, handed him $10 and said Thanks for all your help.

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      • dave says:

        Pretty sure the only thing you accomplished was to make the bus boy’s life a living hell from that point on…

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      • Shannon says:

        Depending on the restaurant’s policy, the other services you describe may not be primarily the waiter’s responsibility. At the restaurant where I work for example the waiters get drinks, condiments and clear plates during the meal, but we don’t bring out your food–that’s exclusively the food runner’s job. At my previous job the servers ran their own food, but it was the busser’s responsibility to bring bread and keep glasses full, and so on. So just because your waiter isn’t the primary person helping you out doesn’t mean they’re slacking on the job–it may just be how management decided to allocate labor.

        Moreover, most restaurants already require the waitstaff to tip the bussers a percentage of either their tips or overall sales, so they’re already being compensated for doing their job. And waiters are generally also required to tip out the bartenders, food runners, silverware rollers, etc, whereas bussers are not. So while tipping the friendly busser instead of the surly waiter undoubtably feels more fair, you may be inadvertently shortchanging the other support staff who did nothing wrong.

        Of course, rudeness is inexcusable in any circumstances, and it sounds like your solution may have been the best in this case. But in general I’d advise against trying to judge whose doing the job and who isn’t because you can’t always tell, and you might not actually be tipping the person who deserves it or punishing the one who doesnt. Just a thought :)

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    • Nick says:

      A former Chicago talk radio host (Steve Dahl) once claims to have done the opposite of this at a high end restaurant where he was taking a number of friends. Steve was famous for dressing very casually, and claimed that he was being treated poorly as a result of a condescening waiter.

      So the story goes that he took a stack of 20s representing a generous tip and laid them on the table, and explained to the waiter that this was his initial tip. Then he took a 20 off and put it back in his pocket, and said that 20s would keep coming off the table unless service improved. Which it supposedly did.

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    • sailingmusic says:

      I’ve spent about 10 years, off and on, waiting tables and bartending. This experience has two effects on me. I have a higher average and a higher variability than the norm. The variability comes from adjusting for service quality, but also for the total amount.

      If my family of four spends $25 at a sit-down burger joint and my kids make a mess of the table, the waiter will get 25-30% for the expected mediocre, but friendly service. If my wife and I go out for a nice dinner and spend $150 without creating difficulty for the staff, it would take very good service to get to 20%. My personal experience was at both ends of the spectrum and I know how hard it is to make cash at a cheap place.

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    • DanTheMan says:

      Friend of mine put 20 bucks beforehand in the hands of the waiter as a pre-tip in a crowded place. Best service ever!

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  4. Coop says:

    I’m a standard 20%’er when it comes to restaurant service… If a server is absolutely great, I’ll probably reach to 25% (probably only happens about 1 in 12 trips). If someone gives little effort and does a very inferior job I can probably dip as low as 5-10%… it would take a serious lack of caring or a wealth of poor attitude for me to leave no tip whatsoever.

    I’ve also found that those who have spent time in the restaurant industry tend to tip much more on average, as well as vary their tips on a larger scale based on service quality when compared to those who have never found themselves in this type of business.

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  5. Andreas Moser says:

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    • John D-H says:

      This confirms a widely help perception in the F&B business that Europeans are very stingy when it comes to paying for service, which is what a tip is.

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      • keith says:

        It’s not that we’re stingy, but our culture doesn’t require us to tip because unlike in America our service staff get paid properly, so we can choose to tip entirely at our discretion.

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      • Shannon says:

        @Keith

        Well our culture doesn’t require us to pay for water, soda refills, or the use of public restrooms. Does that mean I get these things free if I travel in Europe? No. When you visit another country you’re responsible for figuring and out and following their social norms, whether you personally agree with them or not. It’s a sign of respect and cultural sensitivity, and if you can’t be bothered to do this then you should probably stay home.

        Also, American servers are not “paid improperly”, it’s simply a different model for compensation. The advantage of this compensation structure is that servers have more incentive to go the extra mile and make sure their customers are satisfied; those who can do this are rewarded accordingly while those who can’t will self-select out of the profession. The result is that customers receive better service and therefore get more value for their money.

        In comparison, the service I’ve received traveling in Europe is terrible: you practically have to hunt down the waiter to place an order, god forbid you want a refill, and if your food comes out wrong that’s your problem; why should the waiters trouble themselves to give you an excellent experience when they’re making the same money regardless? And the cost of labor is already reflected in higher food prices so its not as though this model is actually saving the customer money.

        Of course, its your right to prefer what you prefer. And fortunately for you Europeans we have plenty of restaurants that follow the no-tipping model. They’re called fast food restaurants, and if you don’t feel like tipping that’s undoubtably where you should go.

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      • keith says:

        Of course, in America I would always tip 20%. You didn’t have to take a cultural observation personally. If everyone was emotionally involved with the foibles of their local culture, Americans would run around shooting people all day.

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      • ohminus says:

        ” When you visit another country you’re responsible for figuring and out and following their social norms, whether you personally agree with them or not. It’s a sign of respect and cultural sensitivity, and if you can’t be bothered to do this then you should probably stay home.”

        This is pure fantasy and I bet a monthly salary that its author doesn’t practice it. Man is a creature of habit.

        When I returned to Europe after several years in the US, I was very well-liked in restaurants because it took me a while to abandon US tipping practice – much like it had taken a while to adopt it. It is patently nonsense to expect people who are there for just a few days to change an activity they have conditioned themselves to over years.

        As for respect and cultural sensitivity – yes, US tourists are very famous for displaying these abroad. Compared to the Vikings or the Vandals, at least… So much so that I’ve seen them consider it rude that natives in France dare not speak English.

        “In comparison, the service I’ve received traveling in Europe is terrible: you practically have to hunt down the waiter to place an order, god forbid you want a refill, and if your food comes out wrong that’s your problem; why should the waiters trouble themselves to give you an excellent experience when they’re making the same money regardless? And the cost of labor is already reflected in higher food prices so its not as though this model is actually saving the customer money.”

        Ah, “in Europe” and “higher food prices”… how great that Europe is such a homogeneous entity.

        Funny how there are restaurants which receive great applause for their service also in Europe. Could it be that, if your experience was so consistently bad, the reason might be found with the one consistent factor in those experiences – you?

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  6. Leah Cabral says:

    We are the 20 percenter customer for us that is the maximum and it will only change if we get a poor service but the lowest it will go is 10%

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  7. John Deatherage says:

    Tipping is rarely about service or lack there of….. That waitpersons are underpaid is well known to the restaurant patronizing public. There is social pressure to tip to make up for their substandard wage rate.

    Unless they have been horrifically bad, I tip close to 15% (rounding). I think most people do the same. And nothing they can do will cause me to tip substantially more.

    FYI: I really enjoy Freakonomics! Keep it up!!

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    • Brian says:

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    • Kevin Shmevin says:

      Tipping does not exist to “make up for their substandard wage rate.” It is simply an alternative primary payment model.

      The small additional hourly wage is secondary and supplemental. And in almost all states, if a waitperson’s tips do not exceed the standard minimum wage, the restaurant has to pay the difference.

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      • Kevin Shmevin says:

        I’m genuinely curious about why this has downvotes. If you’re one of the people who has a negative reaction, please reply letting me know why it bugs you.

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  8. Chris J says:

    One study I read and found fascinating when I was managing a restaurant was on how little food and service actually matters to a good meal.

    Basically if you are sitting across from a stunning babe and conversation is animated, you could be served dog food, and not only would you not realize it, but you would love it.

    When you are having a good time, even the waiters errors get laughed off, the patrons have no need to establish their dominance, and you will probably end up with a good tip.

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