Tip Your ServerWe’ve all found ourselves in situations where we were unsure of what to tip or whether it was proper to do so at all. While a number of establishments are beginning to eschew tips in favor included gratuity, an even greater number of new “fast casual” restaurant concepts are emerging that leave us with uncertain expectations. And depending on who you ask, the expectations of what’s proper can vary immensely.

Tip jars are a ubiquitous feature of almost every coffee shop and lunch counter. We tip the barista but not the fast food employee—even though we’re just getting coffee at each place. If it’s such an inconsistent and confusing system, why do 80% of Americans support the practice?

Most people assume we pay gratuities to get good service. I’ve often heard the phrase “To Insure Proper Service” as a notional etymology for the word tip. According to Wikipedia, the word itself actually meant “to give unexpectedly”– which hasn’t been the case for some time.

The idea is that when someone is getting paid a variable wage based on performance, they work harder to deliver a personalized service. To some degree this makes sense, but studies have found that in most cases, diners tip 15-20% regardless of quality, thereby eliminating incentive.

If you think about it, tipping is a poor substitute for feedback. I had terrible service at a semi-nice restaurant and tipped 10%, which is half of what I consider “appropriate” for an establishment of that caliber. It felt vindicating at the time, but in retrospect, my server knew nothing about my normally generous habits. For all she knew or probably cared, I was just another satisfied, albeit cheap, customer.

The expectations and opinions of others nudge us toward compliance — no one likes to be seen as stingy. Here again though, the research suggests that people tip as much on vacation (when they can theoretically get away with stiffing) as when they’re in their own neighborhoods. Why slip an extra buck to a bartender you’re never going to see again? Okay maybe he’s cute…

Finally we may fork over some hard-earned cash out of the nagging sentiment that our cash wasn’t as “hard-earned” as the person carrying our burning hot plates across a crowded dining room. Waiting tables is no picnic and it’s a widely known fact that people in the service industry rely on tips for their livelihood. Minimum wage laws allow employers to pay tipped employees a lower rate, shifting their costs onto the consumer. It’s estimated that Americans pay twenty-five billion dollars or more in tips each year.

That’s a lot of tips. For us consumers it’s a feel-good expense but one that ultimately adds up just like utility bills and car payments. Over the next couple weeks I’ll be taking a hard look at some of the more confusing issues with gratuity and generating some discussion about what is, and isn’t necessary.

[EDIT: I struggled to find a satisfying conclusion for this post. Essentially, until we really understand why we tip and what impact it has we can only ever guess at best practices.]

So… Why do you tip?

When not pontificationg about the customs of gratuity, Mike writes Broken Cupid, a blog for single gay men.