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By Brad Tuttle
September 19, 2014

In the past few days, tipping has been at the center of controversies involving the Philadelphia Eagles’ LeSean McCoy, who left a 20-cent tip at a restaurant, and Marriott, which launched a campaign to encourage guests to tip housekeepers. The latter prompted many to respond by bashing the upscale hotel company for not paying maids higher wages in the first place.

Clearly, the subject of tipping—fraught with guilt and obligation, clouded with issues of class and income inequality—strikes a chord. It certainly doesn’t help that there’s so much we don’t understand about gratuities. For example …

Until very recently, most travelers didn’t tip hotel maids. Marriott’s initiative to prod guests to tip housekeepers seems to have firmly established the practice as standard. And indeed, it does seem to be the standard: Only 31% of American travelers said they don’t tip maids, according to a recent TripAdvisor survey. As recently as 2011, however, the ratio was reversed, with industry experts such as Michael Lynn of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration pointed to data suggesting that only 30% of hotel guests actually left tips for housekeepers. In 2006, New York Times columnist Joe Sharkey admitted he, presumably like nearly all business travelers, generously tipped almost every hotel staffer he encountered but had been overlooking the maids, “perhaps because they were unseen, working in the room when the guest was gone.”

Where you leave the money matters. Marriott provides envelopes so that guests can leave a tip, and perhaps a note of gratitude, for housekeepers. Hotel guests may not be exactly sure where to leave tips for the maid—and the maids themselves may not know if money left out in the open is intended for them. In one anonymous Q&A, a hotel maid offered the advice that hotel guests should “leave [the tip] where it’s obviously for the recipient—like a $20 on the nightstand for a hooker!” Her suggestions: on the tray with the ice bucket, or in the bathroom under the water glass.

Some stereotypes about tipping appear to be true. Certain ethnic groups are perceived to be less generous tippers than others. Apparently, these theories are not simply urban myths. One recent study found that Hispanics tipped less at restaurants than whites after controlling for factors such as bill size and the customer’s personal feelings about the quality of the service and food, while the conclusion in another survey declared “restaurant servers and their managers can expect below average tips from black customers regardless of their social class.” Only 11% of Italians in a recent survey, meanwhile, said that they “always” tipped for service on vacation, compared with 60% of Americans.

Millennials are bad tippers too. Millennials are known to love tasting new foods and tend to dine out in “upscale, casual-dining” establishment more than older generations, yet roughly one-third of Gen Y tips less than 15% at restaurants. Only 16% of people in demographics older than the millennials admit to tipping less than 15%.

Dads tip babysitters, moms stiff them. Men typically tip the babysitter for an average of $2.20, while the typical babysitter tip offered by women is $0, according to a PayScale survey.

There’s a payday loan banking alternative that runs on tips. It’s an app called Activehours, and it allows hourly employees to get paid for the time they’ve worked—before payday, and with no mandatory fees. Instead of the loanshark-like terms of the typical payday loan, users have the freedom to pay Activehours whatever amount (including $0) they want for the service.

Cheapness is only one reason people don’t tip. The NFL’s LeSean McCoy said that he is normally a generous tipper, but that he left a 20-cent tip on a recent restaurant bill as “a kind of statement,” with the message being that the food, service, and general level of respect weren’t up to snuff. Other restaurant customers have been shamed for using homophobia, racism, religion, and, in one instance, being spurned by the bartender after groping her, as excuses for why they didn’t tip their waitstaff.

Holiday season tipping can be traced back to newsboys. The annual tradition of tipping doormen, mail carriers, maids, nannies, and others originated in the 1700s, when young newspaper delivery boys got in the habit of hitting up subscribers for gratuities on Christmas or New Year’s Day. The practice, which existed well into the mid-1950s according to Bloomberg News, was adopted by bootblacks, street sweepers, and other local service people.

Waiters haven’t always gotten 20%, or even 15%. It makes sense that we tip more as time passes, just to keep up with inflation. That doesn’t explain why we’d be expected to tip at an increasingly higher percentage, however, because as our restaurant bills have gone up, so have the gratuities. (If a fancy dinner in 1950 cost $50, a 15% tip would be $7.50; if a comparable fancy dinner in 2000 ran $100, the tip at a 15% rate would double too.)

Nonetheless, the standard percentage to tip waitstaff has risen over the decades. According to a PayScale study, the median tip is now 19.5%. In recent years, some waiters and restaurants have suggested that 25% or even 30% is the proper gratuity level, and that a 20% tip, once considered generous, is just average today. As recently as 2008, though, an Esquire tipping guide stated “15 percent for good service is still the norm” at American restaurants. An American Demographics study from 2001 found that three-quarters of Americans tipped an average of 17% on restaurant bills, while 22% tipped a flat amount no matter what the bill, and the gratuity left averaged $4.67. Meanwhile, in 1922, Emily Post wrote, “You will not get good service unless you tip generously,” and “the rule is ten per cent.”

Emily Post herself sorta hated tipping. In that 1922 guide, Post wrote, “Tipping is undoubtedly a bad system, but it happens to be in force, and that being the case, travelers have to pay their share of it—if they like the way made smooth and comfortable.”

Tipping was once considered demeaning and anti-American. Slate, the New York Times, and Esquire are among the outlets that have published epic rants calling for the end to the “abomination” of tipping in the last year or so. No one made the case better than the Times’ Pete Wells, who summed up of our current tipping system, “it is irrational, outdated, ineffective, confusing, prone to abuse and sometimes discriminatory. The people who take care of us in restaurants deserve a better system, and so do we.”

Those who defend tipping, and/or those who just insist on always tipping generously tend to think of gratuities as the great equalizer: Tips are necessary because waitstaff and other workers aren’t paid enough by their employers, and gratuities help provide them a living wage. A century ago, however, anti-tipping groups felt they were being progressive by declaring war on the demeaning system because it implicitly created a servile class that depended on the generosity of richer, aristocratic customers—and was therefore anti-democratic and anti-American. The anti-tipping movement gained steam in the late 1890s and continued through the 1910s, when a half-dozen states tried (but ultimately failed) to make tipping illegal.

Waitstaff today need tips even more than you think. As much as some people would love to replace tipping with a more sensible system—like, you know, just paying workers more money—today’s waiters and waitresses remain stuck desperately in need of gratuities. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that nearly 15% of America’s 2.4 million waitstaff live in poverty, compared to 7% of all workers.

Some workers get tipped way more than waiters. Waiters and waitresses get an average of 63% of their wages from gratuities, per the PayScale study, but workers in the stripper/exotic dancer category earn the highest median hourly tips of all, at $25.40 per hour.

We tip for totally nonsensical reasons. Studies indicate that diners tip more when a waitress wears a barrette, flower, or some other ornamentation in her hair, when the server repeats orders to the customer, and when the waiter introduces him or herself by name ($2 extra, on average). Another study showed that the quality of service generally has very little effect on how much the customer tips. And in yet another survey, various consumers admitted that they tipped more when the server was white, black, female, or attractive, among other categories.

Sometimes even experts have no clue how much to tip. Or if you should tip at all. When Marketplace asked Cornell’s Michael Lynn earlier this year about the norm for tipping the barista at Starbucks, or any coffee shop for that matter, he paused and sighed before giving the honest answer: “I don’t know.”

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