The Art of Paying Gratuity

June 23, 2011
Jeff Brown, MD

There is often an uneasiness surrounding the concept of tipping as people fret about how much to tip and who gets the money. Just what is the etiquette surrounding this social more?

The purpose of tipping, as common understanding would have it, is "To Insure Promptness." We usually tip after a service is performed. There is an implied promise prevailing through the event that there is gold at the end of the rainbow, but only if some magical level of accommodation is made. Yet, participants on both sides of the transaction have no doubt fallen into a habitual loop of expectation, which sometimes renders the variability factor moot.

There is an anxiety and uneasiness about the whole thing that seems odd. The concept of tipping should be the free market at its freest, but we all fret at some level about who to tip, how much, by percentage or amount, when and by what means. There are calculators and apps aplenty to relieve these anxieties, but do they?

And of course there are wide cultural variations that routinely confound the traveler. What is routinely expected in one place is insulting by act or amount in another. In my experience abroad, Americans are can be viewed as overgenerous, inappropriate/unfeeling or targets. I refer you to an earlier article I wrote about Americans’ issues with negotiating purchases at home and abroad. There is also a proliferation of websites and travel books devoted to giving the would-be "I'm not a tourist" American a leg up when venturing upon foreign shores.

Our uneasiness with tipping has yielded a plethora of euphemisms to ease our discomfort; gratuity, honorarium and "at your discretion" come to mind. We have tried to cope by approaching the issue as a facet of etiquette, or as a matter of "moral obligation," just to avoid the opprobrium and guilt involved in avoiding what might be viewed as a potential social faux pas by erring in some specific.

Speaking of morality, when does unofficial payment for a personal service slide into graft or corruption? Like everything else involved in our ever-changing social mores, it depends. A non-requested sum to a waiter is ok. That same non-requested sum to the owner of the establishment is usually not done. If it goes to the government employee you have just bought a business lunch for, it’s a red flag — not only is it not done, it is illegal.

It takes years for us to learn what is socially acceptable for tipping and usually it’s by observation: first, through our parents' behavior and attitudes, then relatives and other adults, and lastly, members of our adult cohort. We sometimes learn to characterize people carefully, from the occasional "big tipper" to the "cheapskate." And we try to brand ourselves based upon any number of factors: financial, emotional and situational. Of course the whole thing can become exhausting sometimes.

The custom of splitting a restaurant check with peers can be a landmine. It's a good thing that this widespread practice is routinely managed by experienced wait staff. And woe unto the doctor who either ostentatiously over-tips or stingily doesn't match his/her confreres. I am sure that all of us have stories about the process going awry, usually with relief that it happened to someone else.

My own favorite remembrance about tipping is from my childhood. I had a courtly old-school uncle who once took my family out for dinner at the local high-end eatery. He was a regular there and when he entered the room, I was surprised to see the entire staff, from maître d’ on down, line up in front of him before we sat. Cigarette dangling with a long ash from the side of his mouth, he calmly removed a large roll of greenbacks and proceeded to peel off bills to each and every employee of the restaurant. The size of the award depended upon my uncle's assessment of that person's station. I was astonished. And needless to say, the attentive service we received set a standard I have rarely seen duplicated to this day. Some things about human nature never change.

Interestingly, there have been quite a few studies to parse the factors involved that may determine why some wait staff get more or less than the usual 15%. It turns out that there is only a poor correlation between the perceived quality of service and the size of the tip. Alcohol, group dynamics, self-perception, mood, guilt, gratitude and the amount of the bill all factor as modifiers.

But get this: Sunny weather, on average, raises the tip by 5%. A touch on the patron's shoulder gets another 3% increase. Squatting down to talk to the diners is worth 2.5%. A piece of candy with the bill bumps the tip 1.7%, and if a second piece is conspicuously added, it goes up to 5%. If a hotel bellhop explains the TV, the thermometer and the ice machine in your room, bingo, the tip doubles. And these effects tend to hold up for both sexes and all ages. We can be so predictable, and vulnerable, sometimes.

Lastly, there are some interesting websites where wait staff can report if famous people they have served rated as good or bad tippers. And occupation also factors into how people tip. Two of the worst tippers are high government officials and, you guessed it, doctors.

Bon appétit…