Tipping Culture

You are at a checkout waiting to pay for your food. A screen turns towards you. It reads: “Tip?” You look down and see the tipping options: 15%, 20%, 25%, custom, no tip. Suddenly, you feel nervous as your finger hovers above the screen. The worker is standing right in front of you; there are customers behind you; the screen is big enough to display your tip preference in everyone’s view.

In nearly every business, tipping has become a regular procedure. For many years, Americans have used tipping to express gratitude for a service — a cultural norm and a form of etiquette.

However, the nature of our tipping culture, especially as prices rise due to inflation, has recently fueled debate over what constitutes an acceptable gratuity. With tip jars and mobile tipping options in almost every transaction, the way tipping factors into a consumer’s life and a worker’s salary warrants examination.

According to a 2023 Pew Research Center Report, 92% of U.S. adults always or often tip in sit-down restaurants. Clearly, tipping is a common act among Americans: a social norm.

While tipping has long been considered a customary act in the U.S., for Rosie Kim (12), tipping is not a habit of home.

“[Tipping is not a part of the culture in South Korea]. Sometimes [people] really secretly give money directly to the hand [of the server], but you need to be secret about it,” Kim said.

Kim works at a local fast-casual poke restaurant. The chances of getting tips are very “random,” but Kim has noticed a trend lately.

“It really depends on your luck,” she said. “If you work on holidays, you get a lot of tips because a lot of wealthy people eat out. But then if you work just a normal school day, then all the people who are coming are just teenagers and kids, so they never leave a tip.”

In Kim’s workplace, tips are requested both on digital payment tablets and through tip jars.

The shift to digital options, offering users the ability to select a percentage amount to tip, may be at the heart of the current tipping debate. No longer can customers default to dropping a few spare bills into a tip jar; tipping options, sometimes reaching 30%, are only a touch away.

“Some of us feel a social obligation to tip with the preset amount added electronically,” TPHS AP Psychology teacher Chas Doerrer said. “There is also a social pressure added when asked to select a tip amount directly in front of your server.”

This pressure is known as “guilt tipping.” According to Forbes Advisor, Americans tip nearly 15% more when presented with a digital interface.

“For some individuals, it is socially more comfortable to select a tip privately, using traditional pen and paper or a phone app,” Doerrer said.

With the installment of digital payment tablets, companies now more openly ask for tips.

“It’s almost as if you feel guilty,” TPHS Marketing and Intro to Law teacher Jacqueline Niddrie said. “It’s twofold for me; while I appreciate them doing the math calculations for me … on the other hand, there is
the expectation of it.”

According to a 2023 Pew Research Center Report, 72% of U.S. adults say the expectations of tipping have spread to more places compared with five years ago.

While Niddrie agrees that tipping culture has grown “without a doubt” over the years, she finds ways to avoid being swayed by its influence.

“The expectation is now to the point where it’s exceedingly offensive to me at times,” Niddrie said. “Oftentimes, I will always keep cash with me. And if it’s picking up a cup of coffee that I ordered sitting on the counter, I can put it in, but I will say no customer tip, and [then] tip in cash and reduce the [tip] amount … so there’s all different ways to circumvent the expectation of it.”

For Ellana Tran (11), who works at a local Starbucks, giving tips in person-to-person interactions is customary. But Tran does not expect people to leave tips at her workplace.

“I feel like it’s unnecessary because the company is paying me to do my job and then a customer is tipping me, for me being paid to do my job when really, my employer should be paying me to do that,” Tran said. Tran says her workplace gets “pretty good tips’’ from a lot of people, but that it is the “day-by-day kind.” Tips are usually 5% to 10% of what Tran makes in a paycheck.

Though Tran has always been familiar with the custom of giving out tips, she feels the tipping options at self-serve restaurants are “weird.”

“You’re basically tipping to just serve yourself. I think it’s just a way for companies to not have to pay their employees,” Tran said.

On the other hand, as a worker herself, Tran acknowledges the important roles tips play for workers.

“I know how difficult it is, and how they rely on tips,” Tran said. 

California requires employers to pay their employees minimum wage ($16.00 per hour) regardless of whether or not the worker receives tips or; employers cannot include tips as part of their wage calculations. However, these minimum wage and tip credit laws vary from state to state. In some other states, the minimum wage is met through the sum of direct wages from the business and the tip credits.

For workers that rely on customer tips to meet the minimum wage, receiving them is crucial.

While consumers and workers alike are affected by tipping, it’s a practice unlikely to disappear in the near future. Whether you choose the default or stick to the tip jar, tipping seems to be a habit here to stay.

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