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. Randyycia G. says:

    I think it all depends on the situation. Since I am a college student, we go out to eat a lot and I don’t have a lot of money. So I tend to always tip about the same thing. But if that waiter is unbelievably awesome, then sometimes I throw in an extra buck or two.

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  2. Cindy Q says:

    The norm for tipping in the area that I live is usually about 18-20%. Whenever I go out to eat I always try to tip accordingly, unless the bill is less than $9 then I will tip at least $2. Often times if the service is average or better than average I don’t mind leaving a full 20% tip because tips are usually what compile a large sum of the waitresses/waiters pay check.
    Only when the service is not very attentive (waiting 40 minutes for food, not getting refills, having to ask for everything, etc.) will I tip lower than the standard 18-20%. But it does take quite bad service to get the tip lowered.

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  3. Sean Heidger says:

    I think that the waiter says it all. I think it takes extremely bad service or outstanding service to change the percentage of the tip. This doesn’t include any experience with the food for me because they can’t control that, and they still deserve the tip. I base it on how they acted towards me and how often they stopped by the table to see how well you were doing. I usually tip on 15% of the bill. I think people also take into effect the type of restaurant they are in and how nice the place is. People at a more upscale restaurant expect better service so they might be more likely to change they way they tip.

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  4. Anna D says:

    I think the personality or charisma of a server can have a big impact on the tip. As a server at a casual bar/grill, I would have to agree that, in most cases, people generally tip within their own predetermined range, as long as the service is satisfactory. Having been in the service industry for almost two years, I would say I am pretty good at what I do in that I am always prompt and polite. I am by nature not a very extroverted person so I always remain somewhat professional with my tables, but I have noticed that the more outgoing and personable servers tend to make a good amount from customers they “click” well with. The quieter and more awkward servers definitely tend to average less per night than the more social ones. Therefore, I would say the personality of the server does have a significant impact on the tip, holding the quality of service (in terms of promptness, taking the order correctly, etc.) equal.

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  5. Juliana says:

    Just like Keith’s culture, tipping is also not required in mine. Our waiters are fairly paid and it might even seem offensive if you tip the waiter. By giving the waiter extra money, they might understand that you think they are inferior to you just because they are the ones “serving” you, while what they are doing is just making their fair money. So, even in America I’ll only tip a waiter if I think the service given was extremely good.
    And about the wine, I agree with Talley’s statement because if I ever have to order a bottle of wine, I’ll for sure ask for the waiter’s opinion, because I dont understand about wines at all.

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  6. Nathan Partyka says:

    There are so many different contributing factors to this topic that it’s hard to narrow down a general norm. There are people who have a set percentage that they will tip every time, there’s those who round things up, there are those who base every dining experience individually, those who are servers themselves so they naturally tip higher, and a whole lot more. In the end I think it comes down to the individuals themselves.

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  7. Randyycia G says:

    I think it all depends on the situation. Since I am a college student, we go out to eat a lot and I don’t have a lot of money. So I tend to always tip about the same thing. But if that waiter is unbelievably awesome, then sometimes I throw in an extra buck or two. And it also depends on the restaurant. I would automatically tip more at a fancy restaurant than a cheaper one.

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  8. Ryan S says:

    The original question was “I’ve always wondered how much the quality of service impacts the tip?” I used to wonder this as well when I was a waiter.

    This is measurable, assuming you can get the data.
    1) Collect tip percentage information from all the waiters/waitresses at a given restaurant. By using servers at the same restaurant, you control for various non-waiter factors (quality of food, atmosphere, clientele, etc.)
    2) Calculate average tip % received by each server over a period of time (to control for random variations, differentials due to attractive/unattractive shifts, etc.)
    3) Look at how much average tip % varies from server to server. You could then see “average tipping behavior” as well as how much good or bad service changed this.

    You would think that someone has done a scientific study on exactly this. I did a quick search on Google Scholar and found some possible connections, but did not find anything direct enough to link here.

    Back when I was a waiter, I did make an attempt to quantify this. There was one waitress at our restaurant who was rather nasty. Whenever we shared the same shift, I tried to ask her casually at the end of the shift how much she had made in tips. I then mentally compared it to my own tips. I might be a bit biased, but it seemed like I made A LOT more money than she did, perhaps on the order of 5% or so higher as a % of the total bill.

    One other random personal anecdote: it seemed that “being really good looking” could compensate for a whole lot of mediocre service.

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