Restaurant Tipping in the US – Yes, It’s Really Necessary


One of the more peculiar practices in American and other Western cultures is the custom ironclad rule of tipping in certain individual consumer level transactions.  Despite being “voluntary,” the consequences of not tipping at all or even just tipping below what is considered acceptable would probably lead you to receiving poor service in the future or an irate waiter running after you as you leave.

US restaurant tipping – yes, it’s really necessary

Tipping in this sense is definitely not standard in China, but to put it into the Chinese context, it’s best to think of it as the red envelopes stuffed with money (hong bao) that you are expected to pay government officials or your doctor/surgeon to simply do their jobs. JiaYou would probably take issue with this, but I think it’s actually quite similar.




A non-exhaustive list of services where tipping is expected and usually required:

  • restaurant waiter/waitress (the most common)
  • taxi drivers (becoming less common now with Uber/Lyft)
  • barber/hair dresser
  • hotel staff
  • parking valet
  • food delivery person
  • your apartment building doorman during year-end holidays

We’ll talk only about the first category, restaurant waiter/waitress (I will just say waiter from now on for convenience, though obviously it can be either gender), since that’s the most frequent occasion these days when you’ll encounter this situation.

The official idea behind tipping in general is that a customer voluntarily wants to reward a restaurant waiter for particularly good service, as determined by the customer. And in theory, particularly good service means service that is much better than what is normal.

So, in theory, if the service was normal or below normal, then the diner would have no obligation to tip… but wait!

Over time, the idea has changed to tipping being both required and within a specified range, roughly 10%-20% of the pre-tax meal charge. (In NYC, a good rule of thumb is to just double the sales tax 8.875% and round down a bit.)

True story – I had lunch at a sit down Chinese restaurant in NYC many years ago with a Chinese (PRC national) friend. At the end of the meal, I deliberately left $2 cash as a tip on the table. As we were walking down the sidewalk outside the front door of the restaurant, our waiter came running after us demanding why we didn’t leave him a tip. I was confused and then my Chinese friend sheepishly explained that she pocketed the $2 because paying anything beyond the official price is didn’t make sense. So I apologized to the waiter and gave him $2. And then I gave my friend a half-raised eyebrow look.

We won’t get into the details of why tipping doesn’t make sense, but here are some points most people bring up:

  1. The waiter is employed by the restaurant, not by the customer, and so the customer should not pay waiters directly
  2. If waiters’ compensations are subject to arbitrary evaluation by the customer, then some waiters can receive less and others more depending on which customer they happen to serve
  3. Non-waiter employees of the restaurant do not get this extra compensation, which is unfair
  4. In general, there’s something a unethical about someone (non-employer)having to pay a worker to do a job that the worker is already compensated for. What happens if you don’t have extra money to pay beyond list price? Is it fair that you receive lesser service (i.e., isn’t that what bribery is?)

If you want a more interesting and detailed analysis of the economic rationale for tips, check out this Freakonomics podcast “The No-Tipping Point“.












生活中最常见就是餐厅用餐后给服务员小费。来过美国的人都知道,到餐厅吃饭,坐出租车都是要付小费的。当年我第一次来美国就不理解,为什么吃个饭还要付小费而且也没觉得服务会比中国好上很多倍(中国没有付小费的文化)。我在心里默默地告诉自己这是美国的文化,我入乡随俗。去饭店吃饭的时候,任何饭店都没有标识说你吃饭就要付小费的标识,但是在你付费的时候小票下头就有算好的小费金额(三个金额15% 18% 以及20%的小费金额),一般情况下都是付15%。如果去吃饭是8个人以上,付费时账单已经将小费算到一起了。


Let us know what you think and share your experiences!