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.

Seminymous Coward

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.

Blaise Pascal

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.

Adam W

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.



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.

Andreas Moser

I am stingy. If there is no reason to tip, I ain't gonna tip.
(Yes, I am German.)
When I tip, I usually round it up. So the amount of the tip depends on the completely arbitrarily total amount of the bill and not on the service.

Leah Cabral

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%

John Deatherage

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!!

Chris J

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.


I tip based on service, but my wife hates that I do so. We have settled on giving up to a 20% tip, each of us allocating 10% as we see fit. She almost always gives her full 10% regardless of performance, whereas I start at 5% for good service, drop to 0% for poor service, and jump to 20% for extraordinary service. (I also generally round my tips to a close amount to avoid embarrassing delays for my slow mental arithmetic skills.)

The exception is at a restaurant I go to every week with a group of friends (not counting my wife) for a book club. There I always get the special and a tea and tip $2 on a $9 bill because I have developed a personal relationship with the staff/owner.

Neil Christiansen

I almost always tip 20%. I look at the bill and say it's 67.82, I would call that 70 and tip 14. First off, it's just easier math, and second I spent about 30 seconds waiting tables in my teens and it was a very hard job. I appreciate the work that a server does for me and feel obligated to compensate appropriately. I agree with your notion that most people tip what they tip and unless it's especially bad service ( then it gets 10-15%) or really exceptionally good service (I've gone as high as 50%) I always just round up and give 20%.

I also love your observations about wine and your ability to use the power of suggestion. Very very true.


We tip a little better at places we frequent somewhat regularly. My wife seems to be more generous with tips when our waiter keeps her water glass filled (she drinks a lot of water!). A few times we've had the good fortune of having a server "take care of us" , usually by doing something not expected and we'll recognize that in the tip.

My father-in-law is a consistent tipper, regardless of service. I was a bit surprised recently when our waiter clearly got our orders wrong, costing us an extra 20 minutes, yet still received the same tip. We received an apology from the manager, but nothing was offered (surprised about this too, usually a discount or token-freebie). Regardless, we won't be returning there again, nor recommending the place to anyone else.


I would agree with the notion that people tip what they tip. Both my huband and I are generally 20%-ers, but as my husband used to be a bartender, he has a much greater tolerance for "bad service" than I do.

Michael P

I am usually a 20-25% tipper, and it does take unusually good or poor service to make me move out of that range. I do tend to tip proportionately more for less pricey meals and around the holidays, but outside of those cases, getting a round number (for either tip or total bill) is as likely as service quality to influence my tip within the 20-25% range.

David Bley

Let me preface my tipping behavior by saying that I feel that being a waiter or waitress is a difficult job which is largely underappreciated at best and one which I would fail miserably at.

My tipping behavior is based on the meal which I am being served and the type of service that I am receiving. If the waitperson takes my order, brings my food to the table and attends to my other needs (drinks, sugar free syrup, ketchup, steak sauce, etc.) , I tip 10% at breakfast, 15% at lunch and 20% at dinner. I do not calculate exactly but do a quick calculation in my head and round up to nearest convenient amount. This is based on an adequate level of service and the waitperson being civil (not rude). I will tip extra if the server provides a level of service which is extraordinary or if I tie up the table for a longer than normal time (i.e. I am using the restaurant to meet someone and we continue our conversation past the time it would take to eat).

If I place my order at a counter, fill my own drink, and either pick my order up when it is ready or someone brings that order to the table, I do not tip. If I am eating at a buffet and someone keeps my glass filled, I will tip $1.

I am very tolerant of the server. If they are having a bad day or not feeling well or being human, it is OK. I will not tip less if they are not as cheerful as they could be or if they are a little distracted. If they are rude or spiteful, that will reduce or eliminate their tip.



I somewhat agree, both as a former waiter and as a diner. I tip 18% to 20% about 75% of the time, with the other 25% of the time split between maybe 20% for higher tips due to small checks (I tend to tip $5 minimum for true table service even if it's a very cheap diner where my check is $20 or less) or when my one year old is along (and creates a huge mess, as per usual), and 5% of the time lower tips due to extremely poor service - not refilling my drinks ever, or really screwing up the order.

As a waiter, though, there is certainly some difference. I got on average better tips than most of the other waiters at my final job (at my first job, a Denny's, as an 18 year old male I got far worse tips on the 10pm-6am shift than the women who worked there, for obvious reasons). Some of that was undoubtedly the fact that I was able to work more tables; but some of it was quality of service, as well. This restaurant was in Hyde Park (Chicago), so perhaps Levitt can attest to the fact that you don't usually get very good service anywhere in Hyde Park. Perhaps the fact that I did give very good service meant I got better tips from folks who recognized that; or perhaps there is something of a cultural difference there (most of the clientele are middle class African Americans who came to our restaurant for low price decent food, and while they were often fairly picky about the details, were very complimentary when those details were done correctly).



We frequent fine-dining restaurants regularly, and our attitude toward tipping is: standard service gets 15%, good service 18%, excellent service 20% or even slightly higher. Thankfully, sub-standard service is rare, so we aren't often faced with subtracting!

Marc M

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.


..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)!


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.


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.