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. Marc M says:

    I think this overlooks two other Signifigant Factors: attractiveness of wait-staff, and group rounding.

    The first is fairly self-evident; the “hot” waitress/waiter gets the most tips, all other things being equal.

    The second occurs when a group of people are sharing a tab, and throwing their share of money in the pot, if it comes out to $19/person, with a 15% tip, you’ll probably get $20/person. It’s too much trouble to get exact change for everyone to be worth the buck apiece.

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  2. ks says:

    ..sorry, should also have posted about the wine question at the same time!

    We love wine, and usually order a bottle. I’ve taken some classes and have a WSET certification, but I by no means consider myself an expert–there’s just too much out there. My strategy is often to pick a less popular variety (steering away from Merlot, Cab, Chardonnay, and the like in favor of Txakoli, Cinsaut, Gamay, etc.) and to choose a low-to-mid-priced bottle. I find that people who make the lists often include those types of wine for themselves and their friends, and they are a great value (and delish)!

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  3. Tweeks says:

    I would be willing to wager that a single customer (as opposed to a group of customers) would be more influenced by the quality of the service. Since the “normal” behavior aspect of tipping is not observed by anyone but the server with a single customer, I would expect the “economic” aspect of tipping to take over. However with a group of people, social norms come into play and each person feels a pressure to leave a more “socially acceptable” tip.

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  4. sully says:

    At a high-end restaurant, where a meal might be over $100pp, I EXPECT good service. Any service less than good and my tip percent goes down quickly. At casual restaurants, I am not expecting exceptional service, but if its busy and i can tell the waiter/ress is doing her best in an understaffed restaurant, my tip percent goes up more quickly.

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  5. Scott says:

    If I go to a restaurant where I sit down and they bring the food to me, I like to tip using this formula 1.5a+0.1b where a is the number of people eating and b is how much the restaurant charges. So if I went out to eat with my wife and the bill was $20, I would tip $5. If the bill were $50, I would tip $8. I use this method because I don’t think that working in an expensive restaurant is that much harder than working in a cafe, but for some reason I still feel that the tip should reflect the amount on the bill.

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  6. Josh says:

    Check out Michael Lynn’s work. Recently in the Journal of Economic Psychology, Feb 2012, pp 90-103: Who uses tips as a reward for service and when? An examination of potential moderators of the service–tipping relationship

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  7. Clancy says:

    There may not be an individual effect, but there seems to be a society-level effect. It seems to me that societies and cultures where tipping is expected have a much higher level of service overall than ones where tipping is rare.

    But which is the cause and which is the effect? Or are they both effects of a culture of generosity and friendliness?

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    • Emlyn says:

      Based on my observations, I would agree with that assessment. I’m a Brit, and while in the US I try to tip like a local (20%?). Originally, I approached this negatively but ended up being blown away by the service I received.

      I am still somewhat perplexed by institutionalised tipping, and have been curious about the chicken-egg situation were it to miraculously become the norm in Britain.

      When at home I tip up to the nearest £5 note as standard, only deviating up or down (back to the “actual” price… sorry…) when the service is extremely good/bad; so I guess I support the original hypotheses (albeit, from the cheaper side of the Atlantic).

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  8. Mark Russell says:

    I tip because I am aware that service workers in Murka are considered little better than slaves, and are paid virtually nothing.

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