A friend of mine once lamented publicly: “When did the standard restaurant tip change from 15 percent to 20?” Sure, I remember paying typically 15 percent for a tip when I first started dining out with my friends. That was when I gained my first sense of independence from my parents twenty years ago, as a teenager in high school. At some point within these intervening years, I recognized that social convention called for a 20 percent tip. I didn’t complain; if you can’t afford to participate in the social expectations for dining out like tipping exceptionally, you can’t afford to dine out.
Perhaps some time in the past, a long, long time ago, the purpose of tipping was “to insure prompt service,” but that’s not the case today in the United States. (Actually, the word “tip” or “tips” was not coined as an acronym; someone retrofitted the oft-cited phrase to the word after the word had been in use, and it caught on like a pre-internet meme.) I’m not complaining, just pointing out how providing a small bonus on top of a published price is customary and expected for a number of services.
According to an informal survey conducted by Tom Frank, one of the founders of P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, 40 percent of restaurant-goers see tipping as an obligation and tip the same amount, 15 to 20 percent, regardless of their servers’ performance.
In other words, the waiters who don’t attend to your water glass and who don’t return your under-cooked meat generally earn the same tips that others do meet their patrons’ expectations.
In an article on Kiplinger, Frank suggests customers should reserve their best tips for when they receive the best service. The assumption here seems to be that by using tips as reward, ineffective waiters will determine what they need to do in order to warrant the best tips. Can you train your waiters with a monetary reward, like you might train a puppy with a treat?
I don’t think so. There are several problems with this theory.
What makes a tip a reward? In order to train someone using rewards, the reward must be recognized as such. If you leave a 20 percent tip to thank your waiter for performance, but many other customers also leave tips around the same amount, why would the waiter perceive this as a reward? He doesn’t know you normally tip 15 percent unless you’re a regular customer.
What exactly is the reward for? For a reward-based behavior modification system to be effective, the reward must come immediately after the behavior you wish to imprint. The last thing a waiter does before you tip is generally delivering the check. And many waiters seem to know that this is their chance to modify your behavior. Studies show that customers tip more when presented with a check with a hand-written “Thank you!” or a hand-drawn smiley face (the latter only if the waitress is female).
Because the tip is separated in time from the specific behavior, you can’t use a good tip to reinforce that positive behavior. The waiter doesn’t know what it was that inspired you to leave what you thought was a generous contribution.
Who really gets the tip? Although in the customer’s mind, a tip is reinforcement for the waiter’s behavior, in many restaurants the waiters pool their tips and must share their earnings with busing staff. The waiter may appreciate your extra five percentage points, but if that bonus gets spread among a group of people, he doesn’t benefit much from the reward. At the other end of the spectrum, under-tipping could punish more than just your own server.
The communal nature of tips in establishments managed with this method decreases the incentive for performing well unless the entire staff agrees to perform well.
Here is my tipping and restaurant behavior philosophy. I rarely receive what I perceive to be poor service, but I’m not saying I’m always a perfect customer.
- I enter with a positive attitude. Being happy, inviting, friendly, and courteous are infectious. It starts a relationship, even one that will last no longer than two hours, on the right foot.
- I know someone who used to treat waiters and waitresses as if they were house servants, using a tone of voice that subtly communicated that she was of a higher social standing than the lowly restaurant workers. It was a behavioral trait she inherited from her parents, but when she changed her behavior, she found that she received better service and her friends were no longer embarrassed to dine out with her. I always treat waiters with the respect I’d want in their position.
- I admit I get frustrated sometimes, but I deal with it without taking my frustrations out on anyone else. For example, I generally choose to drink water rather than soda, and a lot of it. If my glass is empty for an extended period of time, I’m looking around. Usually, I see the server is busy with other tables so I leave him alone. I take a deep breath and relax.
- If I want to leave feedback, I speak to the waiter. I don’t assume that he or she will know what I’m thinking based on the size of my tip. Now, I don’t like when people tell me how to do my job, so I assume that the same goes for anyone else. So any feedback I give is positive.
- There’s only one way to make a statement with a tip, and that’s to leave one large enough to be recognized as a real bonus. Think 30 to 50 percent.
- I didn’t realize this was “wrong” until I started seeing restaurant checks with suggested tips listed below the amount of the bill, but I always calculate my tip on the total price, not the pre-tax subtotal. And if I’ve received an item gratis from the waiter, I add the price of the item back in before calculating the tip.
I don’t believe my tips, or anyone’s for that matter, have a direct impact on the behavior of waiters and waitresses. Perhaps some waiters will give some thought to what they’re doing if they consistently receive lower tips than everyone else they work with, but if tips are pooled, the only incentive to perform better would come from peer pressure. Tipping within social norms is customary, therefore necessary for anyone wishing to dine out. Under-tipping at restaurants hurts customers more than anything else, so I agree with Tom Frank’s statement regarding that. If you’re looking for good service, be a good customer.
How do you tip at restaurants? Do you try to influence your waiters or waitresses with your tip?
Updated June 18, 2014 and originally published April 30, 2013.