NPR coined it “tipping rage.” Ever since the beginning of the pandemic (and, perhaps, even prior) tipping has been a controversial subject. It’s optional but really not; “standard” was 15 percent, now it’s 18 or 20. New York Magazine has brazenly declared earlier this year that “15 to 20 percent doesn’t cut it anymore.” At the height of the pandemic, one writer exhorted readers to tip a minimum of 50 percent (and, he argued, if you could afford it, to tip 100 percent). Media outlets have reported that customers are being asked to tip on bottled water. So it’s not a surprise that per a survey by Bankrate, 66 percent of Americans have a negative view on tipping. In a time where inflation is high, the economy is uncertain and paychecks aren’t stretching the way they used to, what’s a person to do? Here, etiquette expert Myka Meier discusses how to best approach the (at times, mightily awkward) situation.
‘Tipflation’ Is a Thing—But Is It Causing Tipping Backlash? Here’s What to Think Through Before You Tap
Meet the Expert
Myka Meier is an etiquette expert and founder of Beaumont Etiquette, which offers courses on British, Continental European and American etiquette. On her website, MykaMeier.com, she discusses modern etiquette, beauty, wellness, travel and the British royal family. Meier has studied at multiple etiquette schools and trained under a former member of The Royal Household of Her Majesty the Queen.
As showcased in the NYMag article, there is often a snob mentality around tipping—if you can’t afford to tip, don’t go out. That disregards diverse life circumstances that would compel someone to order takeout or eat in a restaurant. Meier says that because tipping is customary, you shouldn’t skip the practice—but you’re not bound to tipping the maximum.
“As long as people are tipping within the range of what is considered a customary or standard tip amount, then all people should be able to enjoy a meal out,” she says. “I also think that many people do tip higher on the range, or even above, so it does usually even out in the end.”
What Is a ‘Standard’ Tip?
That then begs the question: what constitutes “standard” anymore? With opinions and numbers fluctuating, it can be hard to tell.
“Let’s look at what standard tipping truly means. The word ‘standard’ is defined by something used as a measure, a norm, or a comparative evaluation,” Meier notes. “Therefore, the American standard tip amount is the overall norm of the country, which has been 15 to 20 percent since 1938 when President Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act about minimum wage, which also led Congress to codify a tipping practice.” She does emphasis that geographical location matters, though. Standard tips in large metropolitan areas, like New York, would sensibly be higher than a smaller city in the Midwest.
It’s All About Expectations
Despite “standard” amounts, receipts regularly offer pre-calculated tips at up to 30 percent. Meier says this may be a lingering effect of the pandemic, when it was encouraged to provide extra compensation as a way to recognize that workers were putting their health at risk. “The pandemic lasted for such a long time that it became normalized to then tip service personnel in that way. That said, post-pandemic we are now dealing with inflation. The practice of tipping 15 to 20 percent was standardized so that even with inflation, as prices of food, products and services increase, the tip would also increase, as it was a percentage of the inflated price,” she explains. In short, if you can only do 20 percent, that’s fine. If you want to call out truly exceptional service and do 30, 40, 50—that’s also fine. “If someone wishes to tip more to show gratitude for excellent service, then it’s a wonderful and generous gesture, however it shouldn’t be expected.”
As for those expectations, Meier puts her foot down on tipping for items like bottled water, or in situations where it was previously not standard to tip, like the coffee counter or dry cleaner. If you are given the option to, know that it’s not mandatory. Of course, if you think the service was truly extraordinary, Meier says that it’s a great way to show gratitude.
In traditional tipping settings, she does add that if restaurants and stores want customers to tip at a certain amount, it is crucial to convey this expectation ahead of time. This ensures that the customer doesn’t feel blindsided and can choose whether or not to patronize the establishment.
“Often now restaurants will include, upon booking, in their terms and conditions, that a party or table will have a mandatory gratuity baked into the final bill (especially for large groups). I think this is a great way of telling the customer upfront that a certain tip is expected ahead of time, and if that person does not agree, then they don’t book a table at that establishment.”