To tip or not to tip…is that a cultural question?

A couple of weeks back I left a 36% tip at a restaurant.  Not intentionally.  I just didn’t notice they had already included an 18%  tip and I added my 18% to that.  I only noticed my mistake several days later when going through the receipts.  Sigh.

That was a lesson for me.  And not only in reading paperwork before I sign it, but also in cultural habits and cultural conditioning.  Now that I once again live in the US, I am becoming more and more inclined to tip…everyone and everywhere.  I tip the waiter, I tip the valet, I tip my hairdresser, and I tip my dog’s groomer…the list can go on and on.  Tipping is now a responsibility, not a good gesture.  And I am quickly beginning to feel imprisoned by it.


Because for those of us, who are used to a different “culture” of tipping — either because we’ve lived overseas for a long time or have been brought up in another country — the tipping is still a choice.  One can still forego a tip if the service was bad and not feel horrible after the fact for days.  When you move to the US, that choice is taken away.  You must tip.  Or you’ll rot in hell of “cheapskates” forever.

So much it is a “must” for most Americans, that the tipping question has become one of our first questions before we travel somewhere.  “How much do we tip?” we ask our friends or contacts nervously.  My experience with answers is usually the same.  “It doesn’t matter,” my friends say, “if you like the service you tip what you want.”  No expectation, no counting percentages, no agonizing.  How liberating.

The restaurant where I left a 36% tip happens to be in the part of the United States that receives a lot of international tourism.  They include the tip because they know that foreigners are not “imprisoned” by the “tip culture” of the US and so, unless they count the tips in, they may not get them.  Smart thinking on their part.  Not too smart on mine.

I read my receipts a lot more carefully now.  And I’ve noticed that here many restaurants include the tip.  I think I prefer it that way.  It leaves out the guesswork of how much to tip — and it liberates me from worrying, if I have tipped enough.

What about you?  What is your cultural experience with tipping?

The people who read this post also read:

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Cross-Cultural Intelligence 101: Tip 3 — Leave Your Assumptions At Home

Cross-Cultural Intelligence 101: Tip 2 — Pay Attention

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15 responses to “To tip or not to tip…is that a cultural question?

  1. Having recently lived in Dubai, where the population is at least 85% expat, how much to tip was a common question on internet forums and would generally quickly dissolve into a heated debate based on the posters’ countries of origin. I never did find a definitive answer and I think most people there tip based on their home culture. As you say, North Americans generally tip generously, whereas Australians rarely tip at all, and everyone else is somewhere in between on the issue.

    In Egypt they tip everybody, including the clerks at the phone company when you pay your bill, but at least the amounts are very small. I was told by a local that they view it almost as a kind of social security system/a form of income redistribution.

    For those of us who travel and are constantly trying to figure out local norms, including a service charge in the bill is one solution, but I must admit I still have an itch to tip on top, as I often wonder how much reaches the individual employees.

    Personally I wish the world would do away with tipping, as I hate having to constantly judge people’s performance, to say nothing of the mental math, sorting around for change, etc but I don’t expect it to happen any time soon, if ever.

  2. While I agree that those of us who have spent time overseas are of a different tipping culture (and can remember when the US culture was 10%). Now the 10% is a good transition. It went up to 15% or 18% supposedly because things were getting more expensive, but of course, 10% of higher prices would also have been going up.

    Now, for your case. If you are truly so not mathematically challenged to actually tip 18%, I would applaud you. Very few Americans could calculate an 18% tip on their bill. Some could calculate 10% or 20%. I would also point out that you probably paid more than 18% because you probably tipped on the tip. Sorry to make you feel worse.

  3. globalcoachcenter

    Ha ha ha …Christopher — don’t worry, you didn’t make it worse, I knew it when I looked at that receipt. Of course, I tipped 18% on top of the tip!

  4. So they actually got a 21% tip added to make it a 39% tip.

    A related issue I had when visiting the US back from the UK was sales tax. In the UK VAT (value added tax) is already in the price – whereas here we have to remember to add sales tax. In fact, at times this is a tax on a tax if earlier producers did not use a tax exempt form to make the purchase.

  5. The US is at the extreme end of the tipping culture not only by the amount we leave but in the environments in which we tip. We have always tipped taxis, porters, and food severs (there it is virtually a social contract), but we never used to tip for over-the-counter service such as ice cream or coffee and a donut. While some of us can sympathize that many employees are underpaid and therefore need these gratuities, it is also true that this creeping tippism allows proprietors to pay their employees less with the justification that they’ll make it up in tips

    What is the international angle in all this? Well, American cultural habits do have a habit of migrating. I was in Frankfurt recently, and what did a see on the counter of a pasty shop at the airport? A tip jar, of course.

  6. My husband is a generous tipper – always about 20% or more; always putting money in the tip jars at the counter. We’re both Americans living in New York. We go to the same places over and over again and he also chats with everyone so last year we sent Christmas cards to “our” restaurant owners and the bakery owner because these people have moved into a new category of friendship. They still get generous tips, and we get wonderful service.

    A couple of years ago we vacationed in a small village in Spain where tipping is more optional, and we stopped for coffee at a small establishment run by a couple who were probably the owners. The bill was maybe 2 Euro and my husband wondered if 1 Euro would seem enough to tip. I told him that they probably didn’t expect a tip, but he couldn’t possibly feel right about not tipping, so he left a Euro, which puzzled the owners. “Is it enough?” he asked me, when he saw their looks. “It’s a 50% tip,” I reminded him, then explained to the propietaria, “Es nuesta costumbre.” She laughed heartily and pocked the Euro.

  7. >pocked the Euro … make that pocketed the Euro…

  8. Americans get very nervous when any Brits at the table offer to leave the tip, I know that? I have one friend who quietly goes back into the restaurant and usually explains the situation to the staff – and adds to the tip.
    One thing I think is hilarious is that Americans can’t even bring themselves not to tip when the service or the food has been terrible!

  9. Whatever happened to the real meaning of a tip, whereas when someone goes beyond normal service they get rewarded? In South Africa tipping is not yet an absolute norm or expectation unless the waitron/service provider goes out of their way to make you feel good about the interaction. I feel very uneasy about tipping average or even poor service just because its become a cultural or economic norm. This is the way I like it.

  10. Randy Hallowell

    It’s interesting to point out that TIPS started in England back in the late Middle Ages. I believe the term is short for “To Impact Prompt Service”, though I could be wrong. The lords would enter a pub/inn and sit down at the table and place a stack of coins on the table. This was the sign to the “wench” to deliver ale promptly. If the mugs were empty for too long and more ale was not brought, a coin would be removed from the stack. This would continue until the drinking was done. When the lords left the pub/inn, what ever was left in the stack belonged to the “wench” who waited on them.

    Maybe we should go back to this. Service might improve!

  11. globalcoachcenter

    Wow, Randy, what a great idea! Thanks for the insight, I never knew the history behind the tips.

  12. Wow – I just wrote about tipping myself. While I simply highlight the difference in amount, this post (and its follow-up comments) covered so much.

    Thanks for the great read!


  13. The culture of tipping is also influenced by tax regulations, labour unions etc.
    In France there was culture of giving 10% tips. Labour Unions achieved, that the tips were included in the bills practicaly everywere. There French people mostly stoped giving 10% tips, but foreigners often continues.
    In Germany you give small tips, only for very exeptional service or at your prefered restarant where you are well known you may give 10%.
    In Russia, tax service do not accept tips if they are not included in the bill. So if you are working for Russian company and invite important clients for a dinner make sure the tip is included . Or your accountant will tell you to bear the tip yourself, and for sure , the Moscow restaurants are expensive, even in the crises times, so the tips may become expensive for you too.

  14. Pingback: Your identity in expatriation: will it stay or will it go? « “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” What was your expatriate experience like?

  15. Pingback: The culture of “fees”: only in the US? « “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” What was your expatriate experience like?

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