Tipping — paying someone a gratuity on top of the price of goods or services — has become commonplace in the United States. It has also become confusing and troublesome on occasion, largely because of its murky history. How did tipping become so widespread in America, and how do we navigate it today with the pandemic and holidays in mind? We spoke with a restaurant owner/chef and a server to get thoughts from professionals who both set and succumb to tipping rules. Plus, we unfold some tipping suggestions for service providers beyond restaurant dining rooms.

Your Updated Guide To Tipping

WHERE DID TIPPING START?

The Grammar Girl in me wants to clear up an interesting tall tale about the origins of the word “tip.” Some say that decades ago, shops displayed dishes for coins that had the phrase “To Insure Promptness” written on them, creating the acronym T.I.P., but this myth has been debunked.

RELATED: FYI: The Acronyms You Need to Know

In reality, tipping started in medieval times in the master-serf relationship when a servant was given money for a job particularly well done. Wealthy new Americans learned this from their British peers in their travels to Europe. Americans thought the act of tipping made them more aristocratic or high-brow. On the other side of the coin, that same elitist sentiment made tipping a very polarizing concept. In Europe, anti-tipping forces all but erased tipping — as it still is today — and in America, “Anti-Tipping Society of America” and other similar organizations cropped up across the South to discourage the practice from spreading to the newly formed states. But tippers persisted. In the post-Civil War United States, tipping was a way to pay for the many wageless jobs that newly freed slaves held, like railroad porters and restaurant workers. It stuck, and Americans abroad were even blamed for increasing tips in private British homes when they traveled.

Beginning with 1938 legislation, employers were only required to pay tipped workers a wage that would add up to the federal minimum wage once you added the tips. More legislation was passed in the 1960s that ultimately determined that entry-level service jobs receiving at least $30 a month in tips required only a minimum wage of $2.13 an hour. With that law, the “service industry” was created and that number remains the same, though the main federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. In only seven states is it required that all workers, regardless of tips, be paid the “full state minimum wage before tips,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Restaurant servers literally depend on tips to earn a living wage. Some are trying to change that.

THE NO-TIPPING MOVEMENT IN RESTAURANTS AND WHY IT’S FAILING

We spoke with Jason Zygmont, a Nashville restaurateur and chef who manned The Treehouse and recently opened Setsun in the Vandyke Bed & Beverage in East Nashville. “Over the years, I’ve seen many attempts to move to a tip-free or, as Danny Meyer (of Shake Shack and Union Square Hospitality in NYC) calls it, ‘service included model’; however, few, if any, have been successful,” Jason says. “Danny Meyer reintroduced tipping in his restaurants when his group reopened for outdoor dining back in June, and if he can’t make the no-tipping model work, then it isn’t happening anytime soon.” In a piece by TIME, Danny Meyer calls for two things that might help: one, allow tips to be shared by all hourly workers involved with the meal, and two, get rid of the sub-minimum wage for tipped employees and land on one minimum wage for all restaurant workers. But when tips get absorbed into the prices on the menus (think 25-30% higher prices), diners experience some serious sticker shock.

PEOPLE ARE NOT READY TO NOT TIP AT RESTAURANTS

Jason cites several reasons guests prefer a tipping model. “First, people generally say they like to have control of the incentive for the server to do a good job,” he explains. “However, the truth is several studies by the Cornell School of Hospitality Management have shown that tip amount fluctuates tenuously based on server performance. If you are a 20% tipper, you generally tip 20% even if the service is sub-par. On top of this, if the financial incentive of a high tip were enough, then we wouldn’t see all the poor service that is anecdotally conveyed.”

Jason Zygmont

Jason started cooking at a small Italian restaurant in Chapel Hill, NC, after graduating from the University of Georgia. Over the next 15 years, he worked in NYC, Atlanta, Copenhagen, and Barcelona for names like René Redzepi of Noma and Thomas Keller of Per Se. Jason moved to Nashville and manned The Treehouse as head chef before starting Setsun three-and-a-half years later. Setsun has garnered national attention and a new permanent home. Image: Submitted

The American dining public is nearly universally against ridding ourselves of tipping, according to Jason. “Most people would scoff at appetizers in the mid-$20s and entrees in the mid-$30s,” he explains. “We have internalized this divide between the price of the meal and the tip to be added on. The level of sticker shock that comes along with adjusting to a non-tipping model would have a severe and predictable economic impact on the business. Then, like most restaurants that have attempted a no-tipping model, they would quickly revert to tipping.” The unfortunate truth, according to Jason and the industry media, is tipping is so ingrained in the fabric of America’s dining culture that it is impossible to remove.

WHY YOU SHOULDN’T TAKE IT OUT ON YOUR SERVER’S TIP

Mary Susan Cashio ran her family’s small 40-seat restaurant in Birmingham, AL, so she saw the entire front- and back-of-house working together. “When a kitchen gets a rush in peak dinner hour, mistakes happen. We always did our best to correct any mistake as quickly as possible, as I assume any establishment would,” she says. “Servers are left to take the heat. Diners might not realize that it is not always the server’s fault. As long as a server keeps a good attitude, is obviously trying to amend the situation, and you end up having a fantastic evening (even if your food had to come out a second time to achieve that), tip them. They are doing their best to make your experience worth every penny!” And that includes the pennies tipped!

RELATED: 5 Etiquette Tips For iPhones At The Dinner Table

SO TIPPING IS STAYING … AND IT IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER!

recent study has concluded that more than half of U.S. restaurants will permanently close, and as of May, closures already cost almost 6 million people their jobs in restaurants. But this fallout does not stop at restaurants. It has gravely affected gym owners, masseuses, nail technicians, and even babysitters and dog walkers whose clients have stayed home for half a year. Supporting local and over-tipping is crucial to getting the service industry back on its feet. Going into the holiday season, it’s especially important to keep tipping in mind. We published Your Guide To Holiday Tipping a few years ago, and in it, you can find a thorough breakdown of acceptable holiday tipping amounts. But for most people who serve you in any capacity and risk their health doing so, this year, cash is king.

Give what you can to restaurant servers, stylists, food delivery drivers, Uber and Lyft drivers, pet groomers, dog walkers, babysitters, gardeners, personal trainers, house cleaners, etc. As government aid has run out, many of these independent businesses and contractors are making far less than they were this time last year. A cash gift or tip can help offset the dip in income that almost every service industry worker has faced. Instead of that bottle of wine or gift card, where appropriate and based on your personal ability and comfort level, give cash or increase your tip … even if it feels strange. Many people and their families depend on it right now.

HOW AND WHAT YOU SHOULD TIP

Here are a few things to consider when thinking about tipping, especially during the holidays and during this tumultuous time. We took Emily Post’s holiday tipping guidelines and updated them a bit for the service industry’s current temperature.

  • Don’t feel obligated to go beyond your personal budget. But be able to tip the suggested minimum if you choose to go out.
  • If your budget does not allow for tips, consider homemade or home-cooked gifts and a handwritten note for the holidays.
  • Add a handwritten note of appreciation — even just two or three sentences — to each holiday tip or gift.
  • If you go above and beyond with your tips at the time of service, you might forego an end-of-year tip or give a more modest holiday thank you.
  • Consider the quality and frequency of the service you receive, your relationship with the service provider, and the number of years you’ve been using the service. Some people become like friends and family, and it’s always a nice gesture to treat them as such.
  • Always be tasteful and get a second opinion if you are unsure of the appropriateness of a cash gift. When in doubt, ask. Call the front desk or main office and ask if the company accepts tips and what is typically given by other customers.
  • Common sense, specific circumstances and holiday spirit should always guide your tipping practices.
  • Don’t buy into the thought that if you don’t give a holiday tip, it will be reflected in your service for the coming year. It is always appreciated but not expected. Keep the focus on tipping for actual services throughout the year!

MAIL AND PACKAGE DELIVERY — According to the USPS Employee Tipping and Gift-Receiving Policy, employees can receive a gift worth $20 or less from a customer, but they cannot accept cash or gift cards at all. A card, snack (maybe even a homemade baked good!?), and water bottle or Gatorade would be a thoughtful alternative. For Amazon, FedEx, or UPS delivery people you see regularly, a gift of $5 to $15 at the holidays is a kind way to thank these workers for continuing to safely deliver your packages.

TRAVEL — For cruises, gratuity is either added upfront, or they provide envelopes before the end of your trip. At hotels, tips are not usually automatically added to your bill. A note with $2 to $5 per night for housekeeping is great. Give the bellhop $1 to $2 per bag and a few extra bucks for room delivery. For tour guides, people generally say the equivalent of $1 per minute of the tour.

FOOD DELIVERY AND TAKEOUT— For services like Shipt, Instacart, Postmates, and Doordash, 15% would be the minimum tip on top of the goods you purchase. Tip the person delivering food from the restaurant to your door as you would the restaurant from which they’re bringing it. If you use a discount code or coupon, tip on the full amount before the discounted price. With carryout straight from the restaurant, stick to 15-20% and add a few extra dollars if it aligns with your finances. A few extra dollars from those who can afford it can really make a difference for these hurting restaurants. And pick local, of course!

SPA AND SALON — Throughout the year, tip at least 15-20% of the total, sometimes more for higher-end treatments. At the holidays, tip up to the typical cost of one visit if it’s someone you are close to and use throughout the year.

CHILD, ELDER, and PETCARE PROVIDERS — At the end of the year, a good tip for live-in nannies or a senior care aide (someone who might tend to your family member in a nursing home) would get up to a week’s pay. Regular babysitters or dog walkers and dog sitters typically receive one day’s pay. For teachers or daycare workers, $20 to $70 each and a little note from the kids would be thoughtful.

OTHER SERVICE PROVIDERS — If you regularly see a fitness trainer or an astrologer, for example, you likely don’t tip during the year, so up to the cost of one session is a good tip for the end of the year.

BE PATIENT AND FLEXIBLE

Right now, everything is off-kilter. People are trying to do their jobs in masks, with less interaction, and perhaps with access to fewer resources or under regulations out of their control. “Working in Cashio’s taught me a lot in a short time about the service industry and how it can be a domino effect,” Mary Susan shares. “It certainly taught me to be patient when dining out and when something doesn’t go as planned. Stay home if you can’t be kind to all the people involved in keeping such a place up and running. It truly takes a village.”

Despite its polarizing history, tipping is the American norm. Show compassion through your tips, your smiles, and your kind words as we enter the holiday season and beyond.

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