Tipping in the US

How much should you give?

There’s a long tradition of tipping in the US, where greasing palms is both an integral part of the American way of life and a social disease (tippititus), and has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of service. Without tipping the whole economy would grind to a halt, although there’s often a thin line between tips and payoffs, a fact of everyday business life in most cities.

Americans are prodigious and prolific tippers, which isn’t normally regarded as discretionary. Non-tippers are considered cheap (the ultimate insult to an American) and are treated with contempt, particularly by taxi drivers. Most Americans are shocked by anyone who doesn’t tip or who tips too little, and some go to extremes and tip everybody in sight, including air hostesses and theatre attendants.

Tipping has become so ingrained that it’s generally impossible to get a decent seat at a cabaret or floor show (e.g. in Las Vegas) without bribing the attendant $5 or $10. Even if all other seats are empty, you will end up behind a pillar if you don’t cross the attendant’s palm with silver. Although it’s customary to show your pleasure or displeasure by the size of your tip, most Americans would have to receive atrocious service not to tip at all (most wouldn’t dare refuse to tip a taxi driver, irrespective of how tortuous or roundabout their journey).

Tipping in restaurants and bars

Many restaurant owners and other employers exploit the practice of tipping by paying starvation wages (the person who delivers your take-away pizza or Chinese meal may get no wages at all), in the knowledge that employees supplement their wages with tips. If you don’t tip a waiter, he may not starve (unless the restaurant’s food is bad), but he’ll certainly struggle to survive on his meagre salary.

In general, a service charge isn’t included in the bill in restaurants and you’re expected to tip the waiter, waitress and bartenders 15 to 20 per cent, depending on the class of establishment. In top class restaurants the ‘captain’ may also receive 5 per cent of the total bill and the wine waiter ( sommelier) around $2 for each bottle of wine served. Most people also tip the maître d’hôtel (at least $5) if he finds them a seat or arranges a party (often the only way to get a seat in a fashionable restaurant is to tip the maître d’ $10 or $20).

The situation with regard to tipping is anything but clear, however, and it can often be embarrassing (it’s surprising that some enterprising American hasn’t established a ‘tipping counselling service’ for foreigners). In restaurants, for example, many bills have ‘service not included’ printed on them to make sure you leave a tip. However, even when service is included in the bill, this doesn’t mean that the percentage added for service goes to the staff (if you don’t leave a tip and the waiter tips the soup in your lap the next time you go there, you will know why). Don’t be bashful about asking whether a tip is expected.

Restaurant tips can be included in credit card payments or given as cash. The total on credit card slips is often left blank (even when service is included in the price) to encourage you to leave a tip. Some bills even include separate boxes for gratuities for waiters and captains, but don’t forget to fill in the total before signing it. Most restaurant staff prefer you to leave a cash tip, as tips included in credit card payments often aren’t passed on to them.

In a bar, you may be presented with the bill after each round of drinks and if you don’t tip that could be the last you see of the waiter for the rest of the evening. In some bars (or where you’re well known), you can ‘run a tab’ and pay (pick up the tab) when you leave. Some people place a $5 or $10 bill on the table or bar at the start of a drinking session to ensure they receive good service. As in restaurants, bar staff usually expect 15 to 20 per cent, although tips depend on the class of establishment. Bar staff in a five-star hotel are used to receiving large tips, whereas in a seedy back street bar they aren’t.

Tipping taxi drivers

When using taxis, a tip of 10 to 15 per cent is normal and the fare is usually rounded up to the nearest dollar. Tipping in hotels depends on whether you’re staying at The Plaza (where you’re expected to tip everyone in sight) or some back street hovel (where no services are provided). Petrol station attendants (who clean your windscreen) and cinema and theatre ushers aren’t usually tipped. Fifty cents is generally the lowest tip for anything and $1 is normal for small services. Other typical tips include porters (50 cents to $1 per bag), doormen/bouncers (50 cents to $10, e.g. at a nightclub), chambermaids ($1 to $1.50 per day), hotel room service (20 per cent), toilet attendants (50 cents to $1), sleeping car attendants ($2 to $5, depending on the service), cloakroom attendants (25 cents to $1), valet parking attendants ($1 to $5, depending on the establishment), delivery people ($1 to $5 or $10, depending on the value and size of what was delivered), hairdressers (15 to 20 per cent or $1 or $2 for the washer, cutter and the colourer), and tour guides ($1 or $2).

Tipping the doorman

Most people give the doorman or superintendent of their apartment block a tip (or ‘sweetener’) for extra services, ranging from 50 cents to $5. It’s usually essential to tip your apartment block’s handyman (if you want to see him again). Postmen aren’t tipped (it would be expensive to tip them every day) but Americans traditionally give them $5 or $10 at Christmas (despite the fact that US postal employees are prohibited from accepting gifts). Christmas is generally a time of giving tips to all and sundry and can be expensive.

It’s customary to tip all tradespeople who serve you regularly, e.g. your doorman, newspaper boy, parking attendant, hairdresser, laundryman, handyman, etc. The size of a tip depends on how often someone has served you, the quality and friendliness of service, and how rich you are. Generally, tips range from a few dollars up to $20 or more for the superintendent of your apartment block (it pays to be nice to him), which is usually placed inside a Christmas card. If you’re unsure who or how much to tip, ask your neighbours, friends or colleagues (who will all tell you something different!).

This article is an extract from Living and Working in America. Click here to get a copy now.

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