Tip Inflation: Why Do We Pay More for Bad Service?

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Back in the 1950s, a good tip was 10 percent. Now we pay 15 percent for bad service. What happened?

One of my articles that continues to get a steady stream of comments is a post I wrote imploring people to not feel guilty for tipping their servers 15 percent for average service.

In that piece, I noted the standard tipping guideline for expected service was 15 percent for as long as I could remember. I also pointed out that nowadays a lot of people are pushing 20 percent or even more as the standard for average service, which I think is ridiculous.

Although I didn’t cite any references, I wasn’t making up that claim. Even as a kid, I remember going to restaurants with my folks and figuring out the tip for Dad. He obliged me almost every time simply because he knew I loved to do that sort of thing. His rule was 15 percent for good service, and 20 percent for excellent service.

Yeah, Len, well maybe your dad was a cheapskate – just like you.

Sorry, but I don’t think so.

Obviously, my opinion doesn’t endear me to the great majority of American waiters and waitresses.

Still, my recollections regarding tipping standards are backed up by The Wall Street Journal, which points out that the standard tip for servers was 10 percent in the 1950s before it rose to 15 percent in the 1970s. And MSN once proclaimed that “20 percent is the new 15 percent.”

I assume if the trend continues, our great-great-great-grandchildren can expect to cough up a 40 percent tip for average service (and 50 percent if it’s excellent).

So what’s going on here? Why are tipping rates steadily creeping up over time?

Well, that same Wall Street Journal article points out an interesting theory posited by a Cornell University professor who has written more than 40 papers on tipping: Most people give large gratuities to make a good impression on the server. Likewise, most people tend to leave average tips for poor service because they don’t want their server to dislike them.

Let me repeat that again: Most people tend to leave average tips for poor service because they don’t want their server to dislike them.

Not only is this upside-down psychology straight out of Alice in Wonderland, but the end result has been a slow uptick in the inflation rate of tips for average service.

Even worse, over the slow march of time, that attitude also can’t help but foster an entitlement mentality in the restaurant staff. After all, why should a server go out of their way to give excellent service when they can get by with mediocre service and still expect to get a 15 percent tip from weak-kneed customers afraid of insulting them? Never mind that, in reality, it’s the customer who should be insulted for spending their hard-earned money, only to have their experience ruined by poor service.

In the end we have nobody to blame but ourselves. Actually, I’m blaming all of you because that’s not how I think at all. (Thanks, gang.)

If I get poor service, the server is usually going to get 10 percent, with the hope that the smaller tip will encourage him to do a better job next time. If that happens to tick him off, hey, so be it.

Think about it. When we patronize sit-down restaurants, we do it because we’re hungry and looking for a relaxing evening away from the kitchen – not because we’re trying to gain a few more Facebook “friends.”

So why worry about a server disliking you simply because you gave them a poor tip for poor service? Besides, don’t you have plenty of friends already? In the off chance you don’t, drop me a line and I’ll be happy to friend you on Facebook.

Stacy Johnson

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