‘England and America are two countries divided by a common language’, a quotation attributed to George Bernard Shaw, reflecting the differences between the two nations notwithstanding the assumed commonality. Another difference between the two countries is the expectation about tipping for service. When I was a frequent business traveller, I would often have that moment of panic when stepping into a taxi at JFK airport – do I have dollars for the tips for the taxi, the hotel staff, the coffee stops? So, I was curious to read the article in this week’s The Economist entitled: “The point of tipping”.[i]
The article explores the psychology behind tips – do we believe it leads to better service, is purely based on norms or out of some guilt-fuelled apology for the expectation of being waited on. Unlike the division by a common language, the behaviours around tipping in the US and the UK seem to be converging. In the US there is very much an expectation for the gratuity payment across a range of services and anything below 20% would be viewed as derisory. In certain venues in the UK, such as restaurants, tipping has become normalised although perhaps not quite at the 20% level.
The psychology extends beyond why tipping is accepted or not – in Japan it can be taken as an insult, implying the server is ‘akin to a beggar desperate for a handout’ – and the article examined how the size of the tip can be increased. It noted one industrious waiter who realised he could receive bigger tips if he performed magic tricks to customers, through to the more nuanced that if a waiter squats beside you when taking your order, the probability of a large tip is increased. The economic environment is likely to play a role too – one study by Michael Lynn, of Cornell University,[ii] found that during the pandemic the size of tips has increased, perhaps a reflection of ‘danger money’ for the workers continuing during this time.
Looking at the reasons for paying a tip, a different study quoted[iii] found that 85% of Americans tipped for reasons of social norm, while 60% did so to avoid guilt. It would be interesting to see how Brits view this. Personally, I think guilt would rank higher in my determination, although maybe that is down to my age. A YouGov study found “older Brits are the most likely to leave something for their server, with 41% of Brits over the age of 55 always leaving a tip, compared to just 19% of 18- to 24-year-olds.”[iv]
Perhaps it all comes down to culture and values of different nations, as Lynn suggests “Tipping is more prevalent in countries whose populations are achievement-oriented, status-seeking, extroverted, neurotic and tender-hearted.” [v] I’ll leave it to the reader to decide which of those characteristics reside in British and American populations!
[i] The Economist, January 15th-21st, pp.59-60.
[ii] Michael Lynn, Cornell University
[iii] 2010 Ofer Azar, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel
[v] Michael Lynn, Cornell University, https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2000/08/attitudes-gratitude-affect-gratuities