Tipping the scales of etiquette

In the right situation, everybody from waiters to tow-truck drivers take tips

In the right situation, everybody from waiters to tow-truck drivers take tips

June 28, 2004|by KATE COLEMAN

Tipping - the gratuity kind - can be confusing. Who do you tip? When and, of course, how much?

But it is part of our culture, and it's here to stay.

So says Peggy Post, great-granddaughter-in-law of Emily Post, author of the 1922 best-selling book, "Etiquette," the 17th edition of which will be released in October. Peggy Post is a spokeswoman and author for the Burlington, Vt.-based Emily Post Institute.

"Tipping is an awkward thing," Post said.

Research done by Mike Lynn, a professor at Cornell University's Hotel School in Ithaca, N.Y., confirms that theory.

Lynn said that one-third of Americans surveyed don't know that the tipping norm - the proper amount given to servers in a restaurant - is 15 to 20 percent.

Lynn uses a convergence of sources, including etiquette books and surveys of concierges at international hotels in the United States, to conclude that a 15- to 20-percent tip is correct and appropriate in a restaurant.


Are tips entitlements?

Peggy Post doesn't like that word but said that, if service is good, a tip is obligatory.

Lynn offered a few explanations for the existence of the custom - one that's different throughout the world.

He has cited the practice of customers wrapping coins in notes or boxes with the words "To Insure Promptitude" written on them in 18th-century English pubs. The coins were intended as an incentive to servers.

The online food dictionary at calls tips an acronym for "to insure prompt service."

Economists agree that tipping is the most efficient way to provide incentive to do a good job, Lynn said. It's hard for a manager to provide the incentive because service needs to be customized. One diner wants a server to take his order, bring his food and leave him alone. Another likes to know the server's name and enjoys constant attention - even eye contact with a waiter who squats down to be at his or her level.

The tip is an efficient means of monitoring and rewarding a person for a good job, Lynn said.

Restaurants, of course, are a common place for leaving tips. What's considered a good job or good service is subjective, and this has an impact on tips.

Lynn said that a 4-percent swing in the amount of a tip can depend on the tipper's perception of service. The same degree of variability can be explained by the weather. Lynn found that people tip better on sunny days.

Lynn suggested another reason that people tip. He cited the research of anthropologist George Foster, who concluded that customers tip servers to keep them from envying the ability to sit, drink and be served. A tip was "drink money," a way for the customer to thank the server so he can buy a drink later.

Others have argued that tipping is a form of conspicuous consumption, Lynn said. It can be seen as a way of showing off.

Empathy for the server is another explanation offered for tipping. The server is working while others are having fun.

Another way of looking at tipping is that many people are uncomfortable being served by others, Lynn said. "Tipping is a way of making up for that."

But the main reason people tip is for approval, Lynn said. It's the acceptable thing to do.

And although the perceived quality of service and social rapport with the server come into play, 70 percent of the variability in the tip can be explained by the size of the bill.

Suppose your service is terrible. Do you have to leave a tip?

Post said it's awful to "stiff" a person.

She advised being open-minded about problems and thinking about what caused dissatisfaction with the service. It may not have been the waiter's fault.

Post also recommended trying to get the problem fixed, if you can without making a scene. Talk to the manager.

Beyond convention, there is value in giving a tip. Etiquette is common sense and the golden rule, Post said. It's about being thoughtful and respectful.

Giving a tip is a way of saying thank you, Post said.

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