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Tipping Waitresses and Waiters – How Much Should You Give?

Everyone who dines out is familiar with the practice of tipping. Whether you are accustomed to just leaving $2.00 on the table, or adding 15% or more to your credit card transaction, like most of us, you will leave some kind of tip. It has become a habit with most of us. Moreover, a lot of waiters, waitresses, hair stylists and barbers, and others actually depend on tips to make their bills each month. In the U.S., it is estimated that over 26 billion dollars changes hands in the form of tips each year. Tipping is so common that a lot of people assume it has been going on forever. Actually, in the U.S., it is mostly a 20th century adoption of a 17th century European custom.

In the England of the 17th century, the hub of social life was the local pub. They were often overcrowded, and service could be sporadic at best. To provide incentive, many pubs started putting urns on the table with a sign saying “To Insure Promtitude” . Customers would put money in the urn to encourage better service. The money was referred to as TIPs. It caught on fast, and soon spread throughout Europe. However, the custom failed to make it’s way across the pond to the colonies in America. Most of the colonists had fled Europe’s stratified class-system, and anything that hinted at servitude was considered repugnant (for some reason, slavery was considered differently, but that’s another story). Not only was tipping not common, there were those who attempted to pass laws against it.

It isn’t hard to see why this attitude was prevalent in America. A lot of our ancestors arrived here as Indentured Servants, meaning they had been sentenced by a Court Of Law to be a slave for 7 years, either as punishment, or to repay a debt (in many cases, the ‘debt’ was passage to America). Accepting, or offering tips left a bad taste in the mouths of most colonists, as well as bad memories, so tipping never caught on here.

After the (un) Civil War, tourists from Europe were amazed that Coachmen, table servers, and such, considered themselves to be employees, rather than servants, and were shocked by their refusals to accept tips. Nevertheless, modern transportation had made the world a much smaller place, and many European customs started to take root in the U. S. By 1910, about 10% of the work force had occupations that involved tipping.

In 1897, there was a social bias against tipping. It was believed that it went against the country’s ideals, and created a servile class dependent on an upper class. In 1900, it was considered to be the “vilest of imported vices”, because it created an aristocratic class in a country that had fought hard to eliminate any class distinctions among it’s people. In 1916, a book was written by William Scott titled The Itching Palm, blasting the practice of tipping, calling it the mortal enemy of democracy, and “servitude for a fee”. Around the same time, legislators from Wisconsin, Nebraska, Illinois, Iowa, Tennessee and South Carolina attempted to pass a Federal Law against tipping in the U.S., but the bill failed to get a majority vote. Restaurant owners began to see the benefits in allowing their wait staff to accept tips. It allowed them to pay out less wages. So the practice eventually caught on.

In 21st century America, tipping is voluntary, but unofficially, it is a social obligation. People who don’t tip are considered cheap-skates, and low-lifes. After all, the servers do not make very much in wages, so shouldn’t they be entitled to a bonus, especially if the service was good? There are different ways of looking at it. I won’t state my personal views as a restaurant professional (there’s not enough space here for that) on the subject, but the reality is that tipping is not optional. In Europe, and in a few restaurants in the US (mine was one of them), a Service Fee is added to your bill to cover servers wages, so tipping is automatic. However, most restaurants in the U.S. do not add a Service Fee, so the wait staff has to depend on your generosity and goodwill to send their children to school, pay bills, see the doctor, etc….You need to think about that next time you dine out. If you feel you had bad service, do not stiff the waiter or waitress. All that will accomplish is to make them feel bad, or cause resentment, which could cause a bad attitude that the next diner will have to put up with, because of you. For bad service, you need to tell the manager. The manager is the one who needs to know about the problem, so it can be handled in a proper manner. There may be things going on in your server’s life that you don’t know about, like a recent death in the family, depression, or maybe just having an off-day. It happens to everybody once in a while. How would you like it if your wages were cut every time you had a not-so-good day at work? The manager is the person to deal with this issue, not you.

So the next question is ‘How much should you tip? Restaurants base their wage structure on the assumption that you will tip from 12% to 15% of the total bill. This comes from statistics put out by the U.S. Department of Labor. Where they got them, nobody knows, but that is the yardstick that most restaurants go by. Therefore, for a $20.00 ticket, you need to leave at least $2.12. $2.50 would be better. If you can’t afford to leave at least 12% for a tip, then you can’t afford to eat out. It’s that simple. You need to remember that the lives of the service staff is in your hands.

I personally believe the system to be flawed, and I never liked it, but the reality is that, according to current labor laws, servers are one of the few professions (and it is a profession) that can force a worker to hand over complete control of their wages to customers, and allow the customers to decide how much they will get paid. Restaurant workers are highly trained personnel who, by law, are put in the situation of having to earn a living with a sub-minimum wage, and the kindness of strangers.

A lot of people wonder why restaurants charge an 18% service fee (or gratuity) for large groups, usually more than 10 people. If you stop to think about it for a minute, this one is self-explanatory. A group that large is going to require the services of more than just one server. So the restaurant has to either take one or more servers from other tables (rare) or call in extra help (more likely). This is to ensure that if someone has to leave a table, or come in on their day off, or early, or whatever, they will be compensated fairly (sort of…). Large groups are hard to handle. They have a completely different set of issues and problems than say, a table with just two couples. For instance, a normal table will require you to have maybe 6 orders ready at the same time (you never carry out partial orders). A large table may have 20-25 orders that have to be ready at the same time. This requires the services of the entire kitchen and server staff to make this happen. And this is just one of many examples. It is more than worth the extra money to cover it.

And lastly, I have been asked about tipping in different parts of Canada, like in British Columbia, where restaurant workers are all often union, and get good wages and benefits. Tipping isn’t expected there very much. Counter this with Alberta, where the wages are figuratively very low, and Quebec, where they charge an Income Tax of 8% of sales to all servers, whether or not they actually received a tip. I don’t know a lot about Canada, but I am guessing it is a similar situation to what we have here in the U. S. All the Provinces are sort of sovereign, up to a point, and can make a lot of their own rules and laws, just like states in the U.S. can. We have 22 out of 50 states with Right To Work Laws, meaning you can’t be forced to join or support a union to work in that state. The states are mostly in the south, and Midwest, outside of the main traditional industrial areas.

It is a good idea to research local customs when traveling. On of the best resources for this is They have invaluable information on local customs such as tipping, and other things that can help you avoid being embarrassed. My rule of thumb is “If in doubt, leave a tip”. I’d rather be embarrassed for doing too much, rather than too little.

So next time you are out enjoying yourself, whether it is a just a burger and fries, or a sumptuous banquet, don’t forget your servers. Tipping a waitress or waiter may be the best thing you’ve done for anybody all day.

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