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. Eden Enter your name... says:

    When I walk in the door I am assuming I will tip 20% or more. Usually more. I double the first number and round up. So if the bill is $86, I would double 8 to 16, then round up to $20. I end up tipping this way even if the service was just ok. It is a pinch to leave a really good tip on a check over $100, but I am prepared. I tip as much as I can whenever I can. It’s easy to be generous with an extra $5, so on a $25 check I might tip $10. When we really like a place and look forward to returning, we tip even more. We tip bartenders lavishly, and get a lot of free drinks. My husband calls this putting them “on retainer”. They are always attentive when we return.

    When I dine out with my children I am expecting to tip at least 30%. Tables with kids are a pain in the butt, and they leave much more mess to clean up.

    I was a waitress when I was in my twenties. I worked in a lot of different places, and I still identify with the staff. When I go into a restaurant I am polite and friendly. I try to make a connection with the server if I can. Most of the time I get very good service. I am aware of how busy my waiter is, and how much effort they are making. So I share the dilemma of Adam W. I will force myself to tip less for really bad service, but I know a waiter who was indiferent in the first place will probably not get the message, and just think I am a cheapskate. And my “bad” tip is still many people’s regular tip.

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  2. PAJones says:

    You could call me a “ten-percent round-up” tipper, where I tip an amount that is ten percent of the next highest multiple of ten of the subtotal plus tax of the amount given. Thus, if I pay 9 dollars for a meal, I will pay one dollar in tip, but for eleven dollars I will pay two dollars because the next highest multiple of ten is twenty.

    I can’t disagree with the reasoning of Mr. Talley. However to be frank tipping was always a mere social grace to me– just something one does because it is the polite thing to do, independent of any sort of rational reasoning behind it. This may be the essence of the “shotgun marriage” behavior that Dubner speaks of.

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  3. deanbrew says:

    I have to admit I didn’t read all 11 pages of comments, but I did read the first few and last couple, and I’m surprised I didn’t see any comments questioning the accepted relationship between the size of the bill and the tip amount. While I’m certainly aware of the longstanding percentage norm, which has somehow grown from 10% to 15% and now, according to many generous souls, to 20%, my tip is based less on the prices of what I eat, and more on the observed service. Why should servers get 15-20% of a bill in a diner, family restaurant, pub, chain restaurant and upscale eatery, when the price per diner may range from, say, $7 to $57? Does the server in the expensive restaurant do eight times as much work, or provide eight times as much service?

    If one is measuring tips as a percentage of the bill, then I distinctly over-tip at low-cost diners and restaurants, and under-tip at expensive places. Sorry to all of the waiters and waitresses, but there’s no way I’m tipping 15 to 20% of a large bill at a fancy restaurant. The higher menu prices might be attributed to higher ingredient costs, more extravagant preparation, higher rent, fancier decor and other factors (including snob appeal), but none of that necessarily results in more attentiveness, better food delivery, drink refills or other service-related value.

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  4. Cobb says:

    I tip very methodically. I take 20% of the total and then round off to the nearest buck, rounding down. I rationalize the rounding down because you shouldn’t tip the sales tax. I never tip for takeout, and I never calculate the tip on the receipt. I just write the total I want to pay – always round figures, makes my expense reporting easier.

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  5. Miles F says:

    One beautiful aspect of the “American server compensation model: is that it is truly the ideal of incentives vs. rewards. This derives directly out of relationship between service (inputs/investment) and compensation (tips). Alternatively, what if there are other incentives at play that are far more significant in determining the amount that is left as a tip for servers?

    For example, I like to think that I tip approximately 15% (generally rounding up from 15%) based upon quality of service but when I’m completely honest this idea isn’t nearly as true and simple as I stated. There are a large number of factors that easily change this oversimplified model including: who I’m with, the attractiveness of the server (does the attractive server flirt with me?) and the many aspects of the food.

    In conclusion, sure my tips are nearly always going to be approximately 15%; but if you are willing to have some basic conversation past how I prefer my steak and possibly flirt a little (yes, I want the smiley face drawn on my receipt) you’re likely to get well past the meager 15% average.

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  6. beeker says:

    $1 per $5 on a meal ticket, rounding up to the nearest easy math, and $1 for every drink while standing at a bar, coffee or alcohol. So I guess I’m a 20% with an emphasis on arithmetic. Having realized that not every day is my best day, I try to cut the server some slack if s/he is pouty or sour. Who knows, maybe I’ll improve the next customer’s service

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  7. Joseph Richardson says:

    I’m shocked that no one seems to have mentioned this.

    Check out “Act Two: Does Niceness Pay”. It’s a small experiment on exactly the question you propose.

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  8. Jane says:

    Tipping varies based on the experience people have, of which service provided by the waiter is only a minor part. Nice weather, good company, cute neighbors, good choice of entrees – it can all outweigh the waiter’s contribution to the enjoyment of the meal.

    However, sometimes waiters have more control over the diners’ experience. If the waiter is uncommonly good-looking, has a unique manner, tells a great story in-between describing specials, or can somehow create drama on the spot — has a chance of getting consistently higher tips, then those same customers normally pay.

    One lady in a Jewish dinner was asking me and my girlfriend why we were out on a “school night”, and recommended chicken soup because it looked like we were heart-broken – we were not, but she got great tip.
    It used to be that women were never offered a check, when dining with men, so the waiter who actually asked me and my male dining companion who should get the check got 25% – way higher than the rest of the service warranted.

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