Tipping 101

Joe Heim discusses the socially awkward topic of tipping, a stock story this time of year, in tomorrow’s Washington Post.

Gratuities 101 (M07)

Tipping is one of life’s great mysteries. Like love and religion, it can be a source of endless befuddlement and deep philosophical pondering. Oh, all right, it’s nothing like love or religion. But it can be confusing to know who, when and, most important, how much you should tip. After all, the line between gratuity and gratuitous is a fine one. As no less a figure than Benjamin Franklin once observed, “To overtip is to appear an ass: To undertip is to appear an even greater ass.”

Hoping not to appear an ass at all, we usually revert to socially accepted standards — ranging from 15 to 20 percent for waiters to a dollar or two per drink for bartenders (stiff your bartender and you’ll be amazed by how long it takes that second beer to appear). But some tipping situations aren’t quite as clear. Should you tip when you order takeout? Leave money for the maid who straightens up your room at your hotel? Slip two bucks to the doorman who hails a taxi for you? Drop your change in the guilt jar at the local Starbucks?

“Most people don’t like tipping, and they do it to avoid embarrassment,” says Michael Lynn, a professor at Cornell University’s hotel school. Having studied tipping habits for years and written numerous scholarly papers on the subject, he says the biggest reason people tip is not for great service, but for social approval. While Lynn has calculated that more than $26 billion a year is spent on gratuities in the United States alone, he also points out that various surveys show approximately one third of respondents in the United States aren’t aware of how much they should tip.

The number of people who “should” be tipped for doing jobs for which they are paid regular wages continues to expand, apparently. People who work behind the counter at coffee shops expect tips, whereas those who work behind the counter at fast food hamburger places don’t. Meanwhile, those who hand you your food at a Chinese takeout restaurant are apparently entitled a tip of 5 to 10 percent “because the person at the counter still has to prepare your order and remember to include everything you requested.”


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Brian J. says:

    Enjoy your world, where tip jars haven’t yet appeared on fast food counters, while it lasts.

  2. James Joyner says:

    I dunno–I pretty much ignore them. I tip restaurant servers, cabbies, valet parkers, and hotel bellmen. That’s about it.

  3. Leslie says:

    I deliver pizza for a living, and trust me, if it weren’t for the tips it wouldn’t be worth doing. We are given some money to put gas in our cars, but when you’re putting 100 miles a day on your car, the expenses add up fast. (Like oil changes every six weeks.)

    Tipping your pizza delivery person is based on a combination of factors — the order total, how far away from the store you are, local average income — because if you’ve ordered $50 in pizza and live out in BFE you had probably BETTER tip about $5.00 if you don’t want your driver to curse your name all the way back to the store. (If you live 2 blocks from the store you can get away with a $1 tip, but 10% is still more polite.) Time=money, and if I’m on the road for half an hour (there and back) for one delivery, that one delivery had better tip.

    Many pizza delivery places nowadays tack on a ‘delivery charge’ to their totals; please please please do not assume this goes to the driver, because IME it doesn’t. This money goes back to the store to reimburse it for the money spent on gas for the drivers, and is absolutely *not* a “built-in tip.” (But check with your local stores to see how they handle it, customs may vary.)

  4. Anderson says:

    Reminds me of my friend in the TA program at Miss. State who had been a waitress and bartender. Every semester, her students got the Tipping Lecture. “If you can’t afford to tip 15 or 20%, then you can’t afford to eat out” was the main point, but with additional emphasis.

    It still amazes me that waiters and waitresses can be paid, like, $2.10 an hour.

  5. shipmate says:

    Here in Japan, it’s considered an insult to tip someone. i.e., “Oh, you poor lowlife, you don’t have a good enough education or the motivation to get a good job. I feel sorry for you. Here’s 500 yen.”

  6. Anderson,

    If your friend from Miss. State worked at Harvey’s, and recently, she probably received a 20% tip from me. I’m also a TA (in Economics) but have never lectured on the etiquette of tipping.