Why customers tip in restaurants and how much they should tip their waiter or waitress was the subject of two recent news pieces. In the latest edition of the New York Times Magazine, 400 experienced international travelers were polled about tipping and the level of service they received while dining out in 24 countries. The results of the poll indicated there was a “Tipping Curve” with countries that customarily do not tip, such as Japan and Thailand, and countries that tip generously (over 15%), such as the United States and Canada, receiving the highest grades in customer service. The Timesarticle
noted that countries that tip according to quality of service or introduce confusing rules into the tipping system are more likely to leave customers dissatisfied. The article suggests that when waiters and waitresses expect a generous gratuity, there is a strong economic incentive for them to do superior work. And if they expect nothing at all, good service is taken completely out of the economic context and becomes a matter of custom. On NPR, a Planet Money podcast explored the history and economics of tipping. Michael Lynn, professor of Food and Beverage Management at Cornell University, explained that tipping has its origins as payment for extra service in 16th century coffee houses. Tips were dropped in boxes labeled “to ensure prompt service” before ordering. This form of payment was a direct economic motivation for better service. But why do people continue to tip today? Lynn suggests that the custom of tipping has lost economic incentive and is now based on emotion. Tipping is now a customary way for restaurant patrons to alleviate guilt for their (real or imagined) higher economic status over the waitstaff and their privilege as a customer. The NPR podcast concluded that, regardless of the motivation, tipping is still an essential component of the restaurant industry. With 40 billion dollars a year paid in tips in the United States, waiters and waitresses rely on tips for an adequate living. For more information on the subject, be sure to check out Keep the Change by “Waiter Rant” author Steve Dublanica.