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Absolute beginners
Tips and Tipping

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Tipping for service received in the USA is at once both very similar to the UK and at the same time totally different. The difference is in the culture behind it. Read on for a beginners guide to this subject.

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How I was first introduced to tipping in the USA

My own introduction to the subject of tipping in America came during my first business trip to the USA in the late 1980's (yes I am that old !). An English work colleague (his first trip also) and I had a meal in Philadelphia and walked from the restaurant deep in conversation. We were pursued by the girl from the cashiers desk who asked us "what had gone wrong with the service in her restaurant ?". Baffled and wondering what we had done to make her think something was wrong we said everything was fine and why did she think there was a problem. She answered that as we did not leave a tip she had assumed that they had done something badly wrong. We assured her everything was OK, paid a tip and left feeling puzzled by what had happened. When I have repeated this story back home, people have cynically said that they were greedy for the tip. I can assure you that there was genuine concern that they had committed some terrible offence to us and the lack of tip was the signal for that.

On the same trip, American work colleagues then educated us about the tipping system and how it works. Here then is the results of that education built upon by many years of travel now to this wonderful country.

Why is the tipping system there ?

The basic concept is unlike we think in the UK. Here when we go for a meal, the price we pay is what we expect to pay for the whole restaurant experience i.e. the costs of running the establishment, the cost of the food, the food preparation and the service of that food to us. Many of us will leave a tip if we are impressed by the service but I know from observation that tips are not universally given and rarely exceed 10%.

In the USA the waiters and waitresses are paid very little. Their wages are made up to a reasonable level by the receipt of tips from satisfied cutomers. Americans understand and respect this situation and so will only fail to tip if the service from the serving person is poor. 15% is around the going rate for good service, 20% if its excellent and 10% if its not quite so good. No tip or a very low tip is reserved for poor service, inattentive or rude service but not for things outside the control of the waiter/waitress i.e. you dont punish the serving staff for poor food as long as the serving staff have dealt with any complaints you have sympathetically and promptly.

The upshot of this self regulating system is that only good sevice is rewarded and those who are not cut out to work in the industry move along because they cannot make a living at it. Conversely, those who are gifted at adding to customers enjoyment will make a very good living. Its a perfect system until............. the english come along.

Why should you tip when you are in the USA ?

If you visit the USA and do not respect this tradition, you are in essence stealing money from the pay packet of poorly paid people. Whilst in this system you have the freedom to choose not to pay, if you have any personal integrity you are obliged to pay as long as you have received adequate service. If you cannot bring yourself to pay the full price for your dining experience i.e. the bill plus 15% ish then dont dine there, go to a fast food place.

From what I have seen over the years, the system may be breaking down where high concentrations of UK visitors go. Around Orlando Florida it seems to me that more and more places are automatically adding a service charge and that the standard of service is often worse than elswhere in the states. I suspect this is because the British dont tip. I hope I'm wrong but I dont think I am. Please respect another countries culture when you visit it.

Whilst I have focussed on restaurant staff here, the same applies for all types of service staff e.g bar staff, hotel porters, tour guides etc etc.

Site visitor post
A lighthearted story regarding tipping.

A girl colleague of mine returned from her first visit to the States complaining bitterly about tipping.
She informed me that on her first day she noticed an envelope for tipping the maid in her hotel and someone advised her that $10 was a reasonable amount so she put $10 in the envelope only to find it had been replaced on day 2. Yes you guessed it, she assumed another $10 was in order and she stayed there for 14 days.

Please only tip on departure or you could have an expensive time !

Site visitor post
1. If it is a full service establishment (traditional waitstaff) then the above guidelines are indeed accurate.

2. If you are in a fast food/self service type of location no tip is required or expected.

3. If you are someplace that is a mix of the two such as a buffet then a very small tip is in order. These places typically will have a wait staff to clear used plates, refresh your drinks or to assist you with anything that you might require. Typically a tip of $1-$2 per person is adequate at the places as they are not making the minimum rate of pay that a traditional waiter/waitress will be making.

4. In a bar/pub situation it is fairly normal to tip the waitress/bartender $1 and the change from a round of drinks if you are paying for each round as they are brought. If you are running a tab then (depending on the size of the tab) a tip of 10-15% is not out of the ordinary. Bar tipping, however, is completely up to you. If you fail to tip the waitstaff, you will find that you get very poor service. Tip them well and you will find that they can be very attentative.

5. Depending on the individual restaurant, groups of anywhere from 5 or larger could have the gratuity added to the bill and you will not have the option of tipping less for very poor service. The normal sized gratuity that places add is 18%. Please be aware that it is possible your gratuity is already included in the price of the meal.

Site visitor post
Point 3 above is misleading in my opinion.

Servers at buffets are paid the normal or minimum wage. The Internal Revenue Service taxes them at a rate of 8% of their daily sales..and so an 8% tip is appropriate for good service.

Customers often make request for special items to be placed on the food bars, and in that case they are probably served the first portion at their table. I realize that this is a confusing issue but I tip a dollar or two even if I'm carrying out food ..if I'm at an independent restaurant.

You're quite right to suggest that if people don't want to tip they should avail themselves of fastfood McDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell, etc.

E-mail me with any questions

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