SEATTLE — If you find yourself struggling with how much to tip your hairstylist or whether you should tip the local barista, you’re not alone.
Andy Hafenbrack, professor of management at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, still calls his father for tipping advice. Hafenbrack lived abroad for a decade before moving back to the United States three years ago, and he’s still trying to wrap his head around tipping norms.
“Do I tip the person who changed out my garage door opener?” Hafenbrack asked his father the other week. “I just didn’t know.” (His father said no.)
The world of gratuity is confusing, and even the experts don’t have it all figured out.
“I wish I could give you a real simple answer — and there isn’t one,” said Michael Lynn, professor of consumer behavior and marketing at Cornell University’s hotel administration school.
Arden Clise, a Seattle-based etiquette expert, agreed that there’s no catchall percentage or dollar amount that can be applied to every tipped worker — hence the anxiety around tipping.
“It really depends, and that’s what makes it so challenging for us,” she said.
What the science says
While there’s no one-size-fits-all rule, Lynn’s research has identified five major motivations for a customer to tip a server:
1. They empathize with servers and want to help them out.
2. They want to reward good service.
3. They hope to ensure quality future service.
4. They seek to increase social esteem with the server and other onlookers.
5. They feel obligated to obey social norms.
A separate study examined why we tip certain occupations over others. Lynn found that consumers are more likely to tip workers in jobs where:
- The customer can more easily evaluate a worker’s performance than a manager.
- The worker provides a customized service.
- The employee appears to have low income, skill and needed judgment.
- The service provider is less happy than the customer during the exchange.
Restaurant servers and ride-hailing service drivers (like Uber and Lyft), for example, tailor their approach to the customer’s individual needs. One group of customers might want to talk extensively with the server or driver, while other customers prefer as little interaction as possible. Tipping, economists say, is an efficient way to reward good service in these kinds of roles.
“The customer knows whether their wishes are being met,” Lynn said.
Lower-income service workers are more likely to be tipped than higher-paid workers, presumably because customers have greater empathy for them. Restaurant servers who develop “social rapport” with the customer — such as introducing themselves, smiling and getting on eye level with the customer — increase their tips.
Workers are generally more likely to get tipped in settings where the customer is happier than they are. This builds off anthropologist George Foster’s theory that tips are used to neutralize a server’s envy of the customer and encourage them to provide a good experience.
“Why do we not tip our dentist or doctor?” Lynn asked. “Well, because the customer is having a lousy time.”
Lynn admits that these theories only explain 50% to 60% of why customers tip in the industries they do.
“There’s a lot going on that I don’t even know where to begin measuring to test,” he said.
One thing experts agree on is that the COVID-19 pandemic heightened Americans’ awareness of front-line service work and the financial precarity of jobs that rely on tips.
People became more generous and started tipping higher amounts, Clise said.
“Suddenly, we feel we need to tip everyone — but we don’t,” she added.
Natalie Kelly, a union organizer with Unite Here Local 8, which represents hospitality workers, argues that the pandemic made tips even more important for workers in service industries affected by the pandemic. Many hotels suspended service in 2020 and early 2021 due to a drop in travelers. When workers returned, they found a largely cashless society and much fewer tips.
“It continues to be really economically difficult times for many tipped workers, particularly in hotels,” Kelly said. “We hope that people will recognize that and will remember to bring cash and tip the professionals serving them.”
What the workers say
DoorDasher Maelstrom Pullman relies heavily on tips to make delivery driving worth the effort. As they explained in one of their TikToks, only about one-third of the money they make while driving comes from DoorDash itself — the rest comes from the customer via tips and Seattle’s “premium pay,” which the city established in June 2020 to earn delivery drivers an additional $2.50 per order.
“Tipped jobs are unreliable by their nature,” Pullman said. “If you don’t tip, they don’t get paid.”
Pullman has 30 seconds to choose whether or not to accept an order. When an order pops up in their DoorDash app, they calculate, How long will this trip take me? Will I have to pay for any tolls? How much gas am I using? Is all that worth the payout I’ll get?
They only accept orders that pay $8.50 or more.
Pullman says DoorDash hides the tip amount from drivers, presumably to remove any incentive from the customer to prioritize their orders.
“It’s all psychology and outsourcing for them,” Pullman said. “The driver has to maintain and own a car, then we have to pay for the fuel, and we don’t get paid for our time.”
Pullman worked closely with the Seattle City Council to pass the “Pay Up” legislation, which will institute a per-minute and per-mile minimum wage for app-based drivers starting in 2023. That policy also requires apps like DoorDash to be more transparent about each order, such as providing time and mileage estimates as well as disclosing any upfront tips.
Eric Olinsky has led food tours through Pike Place Market for the last five years with Eat Seattle Tours. During the summer travel season, he leads about two tours a day. At the end of a tour, he’ll give the “tip pitch,” telling people he’s happy to accept gratuity in a “myriad” forms, including cash, PayPal, Venmo and Cash App. To lighten the mood, he’ll jokingly throw out bitcoin and GameStop options as possibilities, too.
“The joke tends to disarm the moment a little bit,” Olinsky said. He quickly moves on from money talk, though, and tells guests another way they can express their gratitude is by leaving a review on sites like Google, TripAdvisor or Yelp.
Olinsky can’t remember many experiences where he’s felt cheated out of a tip. Having worked in sales, he’s used to having a portion of his income fluctuate depending on how well he does the job, although he feels like the tips he receives these days are relatively consistent.
“It’s less about people’s opinion of me and more about my own performance,” he said. “If I’m able to consistently do a really great job, then the tips wind up finding their way to me. If I’m really off my game, then I don’t feel like I’m going to get tipped as well.”
For more than 20 years, Mwaba Francis has served guests at a DoubleTree by Hilton near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport as a bellman and shuttle driver. The 41-year-old moved to SeaTac in 2000 from his hometown of Mufulira, Zambia, and he hasn’t worked anywhere else.
Although Francis makes SeaTac minimum wage, which rose to $17.54 an hour earlier this year, his job is still considered a tipped position by both his employer and his union, Unite Here Local 8. This means tips are assumed to be part of his income.
Before COVID, Francis made about $80 a day in tips. The DoubleTree shut its doors for nearly a year due to the pandemic, and since it reopened in March 2021, Francis now only nets about $30 to $40 in tips.
Guests usually tip anywhere from $1 to $10, and on the rare occasion someone will give him a $20 bill. Francis estimates about 80% of people tip him when he takes their bags to their rooms, but only a few tip for a ride between the airport and the hotel.
Francis graciously said there’s no such thing as a bad tip, in his mind.
“I’m not going to ask someone to give me $20.”
As the world goes cashless, Francis worries that workers who don’t understand or have access to digital payment apps like Venmo or Cash App will miss out on gratuity (he has Venmo, but not Cash App). He hopes more travelers will understand that there are a lot of hotel workers whose jobs were advertised to them as minimum wage plus tips.
“When I’m going to a hotel or getting service from somebody, the American way is to tip,” Francis said. “It’s pretty much part of saying ‘thank you’ for doing what you just did.”