Tip requests are everywhere

Are Americans greedy or is service worse?

by Nicole Russell

If you’ve ordered a coffee and been asked to tip your barista at Starbucks and hesitated, you’re not alone: If you don’t tip, will your chipper barista be let down? What does everyone else do?

This was the subject of a fascinating new study by the Pew Research Center, which created an interactive fictional American town, “Tipping Point,” that asks users how they’d tip in various situations and then lets you see how your answers compare to others.

The survey is timely: Establishments requiring or asking for tips has increased. If I’m at a business and an employee hands me an iPad, I know I’m about to be asked to tip them on something that I’ve probably never paid a tip for before.

According to Pew, 72% of U.S. adults say that tipping is expected in more places today than it was five years ago. Some have dubbed this new era “tipflation” because it seems so excessive.

High-tech electronics are not the only cause. It seems like a trickle-down effect of participation trophies, the trend that picked up in the 1990s that rewarded kids, and even adults, just for being on a team, whether or not the team won.

Advocates will say this has been around decades. Cynics will say it ratcheted up in our lifetime. Hear me out.

Tipping used to be based on service excellence. If a waiter was prompt, attentive and polite, that person earned a 20% tip. Now, large parties at more expensive restaurants will find that a 20% tip has been automatically added to their check, regardless of service.

If everyone gets a trophy for being on the team, why shouldn’t every establishment at least offer — if not expect — their employees to receive tips on their service, even if you do all the work? I’ve gone to some stores where I’ve done all the shopping myself, gone to the counter to pay for the items with my own money, and still been asked to tip. What am I paying for? Just the fact that the business exists? It seems like tipping culture is removing incentives for employees to do their best.

In this tough economy, it’s easy to see why establishments at least ask for tips. Times are hard for everyone and a lot of people — particularly Americans — are generous. Around the holidays, a season that emphasizes charity, people tend to boost their giving. Still, it’s difficult to reward establishments just for existing and especially for subpar service.

Understandably, Americans are torn about the new tipping culture they find themselves in. About 45% say they still tip based on specific situations and 40% oppose suggested tip amounts, the Pew report found.

Recently, a viral TikTok and YouTube video showed a driver delivering $400 worth of food. When she realizes she isn’t getting tipped, she says she’ll keep the food her customer ordered. Reactions online were mixed but many people commented that the driver is already getting paid by the app to deliver food and a tip would have been a bonus, not an expectation.

Employees might appreciate devices that at least encourage patrons to tip, but unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to have succeeded. Adults in the survey said they tip because it’s an obligation, and the industry that earned the most tips was still sit-down restaurants, followed by haircuts, food delivery services and purchasing a drink at a bar. Just 43% of Americans always tip when using a taxi or Uber, and a mere 12% always tip at a coffee shop.

The holidays are a time to be generous, but it’s also important for society to reward a job well done. Tips should be earned, not expected. Yet people should also be generous when given the chance.

Americans spending their dollars must make this choice wisely, especially now that anyone can leave a tip just about anywhere.

Nicole Russell is an opinion writer at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She has covered law, politics and cultural issues for The Washington Examiner, The Daily Signal, The Atlantic and The New York Post.