The Observer

Have We Reached the Tipping Point?

Knowing whether, when, or how much to give as a gratuity can be challenging. We looked at the fixed-rate versus free-will divide.
© Mathilde Aubier/France-Amérique

“Restaurant servers in two different countries chased me down the street last month,” confided a friend just back from a round-the-world trip. “In Kyoto, it was to give me back the cash I’d left on the table for a tip; in Chicago, it was because I hadn’t tipped enough!” In the first case, she said, the server was embarrassed; in the second, furious. As most well-traveled readers will know, one of the hardest things to master is when and whether to tip and, if so, how much to give. But a closer look at the phenomenon – especially from a cross-cultural perspective – reveals deep-seated historical factors that make tipping less about mastering social etiquette and more about tiptoeing through a protocol minefield. From that perspective, the differences between France and the U.S. are edifying. According to some observers, those dissimilarities are evident in the terms used to describe gratuities: In America, the purpose of a “tip” is To Improve Performance (or To Insure Promptness), whereas in France, it’s to buy the server a drink (the meaning of pourboire): American efficiency versus French hedonism. (In truth, the etymological link between “tip” and “tipple” might suggest a similar origin, but why sacrifice a good story?)

Historically, tipping originated in feudal Europe as a way of redressing the social disparity between server and served, thus assuaging the feeling of resentment. An eminent American social anthropologist famously argued that people tip waiters to buy off their envy and to equalize the relationship between the two sides of a transaction. When moneyed Americans started traveling abroad in the 19th century, many of them aped supposedly sophisticated European customs – including tipping – and brought them back home. According to legend, gratuities were first introduced in the 1820s at Delmonico’s, a French-style restaurant in New York City. Judging by contemporary accounts, the astonished waiters did not know what to make of them. According to historians, however, tipping really took off half a century later in the aftermath of the Civil War when newly enfranchised Blacks took up service jobs such as railroad porters and, of course, waiters. Paying them a bare minimum and forcing them to live from customers’ tips slowly became the norm.

In the Reconstruction era, this kind of discrimination was anathema. Public reaction was forthright: Tipping was “a cancer in the breast of democracy” and the symbol of aristocratic ideas – “flunkyism” – that Americans’ ancestors had fled Europe to escape. In sum, tipping was un-American because it exemplified a master-servant relationship that was out of place in an egalitarian republic. It was even banned by law in six States. But the reformist movement failed to gain traction and, by 1926, all these anti-tipping laws had been repealed, largely because it seemed pointless to regulate something that had gained a momentum of its own. From then on, tipped labor became the norm. (Interestingly, the anti-tipping movement eventually spread to Europe. According to Saru Jayaraman, director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, European labor unions picked up the theme and said, “we are professionals, and we shouldn’t have to live on tips; we should be paid by our employers.”) Multiple attempts over the years to overhaul America’s rules have floundered, despite a glaring and persistent disparity between the federal minimum wage (currently 7.25 dollars per hour) and the tipped hourly rate of 2.13 dollars, unchanged since 1991. And although some states, such as California, have higher minimum rates, the gap between tipped and untipped workers is nonetheless huge.

More alarmingly, tipping culture has spread from restaurants to almost every area of the service industry, from dog walking to waxing, in a process that goes by the worrying name of “tip creep.” And the amounts given to, or expected by, workers have risen as a fraction of the check from around 15% to 20% or even higher. This so-called “tipflation” is propelled by a range of factors, from technology (think tablets and apps with suggested percentages) to guilt (“These poor workers really deserve to earn more”). Consequently, it is now the customer, not the employer, who determines what workers earn. And saying no is rarely an option: Just try clicking “No Tip” under the unflinching gaze of your local barista. As one industry expert put it, we have progressed from omission (failing to drop a few coins in the tip jar) to commission (we have to make a deliberate decision to refuse a gratuity).

© Mathilde Aubier/France-Amérique

The situation in France is quite different. Tipping has long been viewed with suspicion because it smacks of class distinction and noblesse oblige. In the 1920s, as Ms. Jayaraman noted, labor unions opposed the practice because it was paternalistic. Concerted efforts were made to either regulate or control the giving of gratuities in service jobs, especially in the restaurant industry where, for decades, they made up a sizable portion – if not all – of a server’s remuneration (the traditional waiter’s apron included a special tip pocket). In some establishments, the pourboires were so substantial that a would-be waiter would pay an incumbent for the privilege of taking over their job. Finally, in 1987, legislation was introduced to regulate pay and conditions in the sector.

Wait staff are now employed on fixed-term or open-ended contracts negotiated under a collective bargaining agreement and they receive a salary, along with standard entitlements to health care, welfare benefits, and paid holidays. A mandatory service charge (typically 15%) is included in the prices displayed on menus and till receipts. Nothing else is due or chargeable. Consequently, the decision to tip is entirely discretionary and depends largely on the customer’s appreciation of the service they have received. And although table-waiting has not always been considered a prime job – the slang term for a waiter, un loufiat, is related to another word for lazy – it has evolved into a fully-fledged profession demanding respect and proper training – typically two years in a specialized school. A server in France will tell you the differences between Malbec and Merlot, or Roquefort and Fourme, but he may not greet you with a beaming smile, promise to take care of you, and inquire about your satisfaction every 10 minutes. Indeed, many tourists – especially Americans – feel that France suffers from a “welcome deficit.” To which a typical server might retort that it’s better to be gently gruff than phony-friendly.

Observers familiar with the systems and habits in the U.S. and France have noted that America’s way of tipping is entirely consistent with the assumption of free will that permeates almost every aspect of its society. Customers balk at being forced to pay a gratuity, even though they always end up doing so. An experiment conducted by Michael Lynn, a professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University, showed participants two hypothetical menus, one showing regular prices with a footnote saying that a customary tip of 15-20% would be “appreciated,” the other with the same food choices at a 15% markup and a note saying that the increase was intended to “pay our staff.” People were then asked which of the two menus was the more expensive. The overwhelming majority said that the “service included” option cost more – despite acknowledging they would tip at least 15% anyway. Bottom line: It’s my choice, even if the final price is higher.

When it comes to paying the check in France, how much should the customer leave? The policy of service compris is so ingrained that most people will simply put a few coins or a small-denomination bill on the table if the dining experience has been particularly enjoyable. A recent survey by French market researcher CSA showed that 75% of consumers (and 85% of restaurant customers) always leave a tip, in an average amount of just 3 dollars. What’s more, the number of tippers has been declining, not because of tip creep but because fewer people carry cash nowadays and not many payment card terminals are programmed to add gratuities. Younger people in particular seem to feel that leaving a glowing review on an online shopping or consumer website is equivalent to leaving a tip. A recent study of Gen Zers in France concludes that youngsters in this age range do not have “a natural giving reflex” and would rather save money because they are bleakly pessimistic about the future.

Despite the stark cultural differences between French and American consumers, it would nevertheless seem that some form of tip fatigue is omnipresent and, in all probability, intensifying. Nevertheless, the consensus view is that the gratuity-giving mindset is so deeply embedded in American culture that no meaningful change is likely in the near future. Indeed, a researcher recently discovered that the artificial intelligence tool ChatGPT produced significantly longer answers if the questioner offered it a tip. Yes, even robots respond to bribery. In France, meanwhile, you can always count on a professional waiter to adopt the right tactics to win a customer’s favor. “Is the service included?,” I once asked a waiter at a famous café on Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris. “Oui monsieur,” he replied. “But not the tip.”

Article published in the March 2024 issue of France-Amérique.