“I don’t tip because society says I have to,” says Mr. Pink, the crook played by Steve Buscemi in the 1992 Quentin Tarantino film Reservoir Dogs. “Alright, I mean I’ll tip if somebody really deserves a tip. If they put forth the effort, I’ll give them something extra. But I mean, this tipping automatically, it’s for the birds.”
More than 20 years later, there are real people, dining among us, who still feel that way.
“I just don’t feel the need to tip that much,” explains Sam, a 29-year-old woman living in New York City. “I spend a lot on food and alcohol and travel because I enjoy those things. I’ll tip a little bit but I don’t feel like I need to tip a lot.” Sam knows that she should tip, and shame around not tipping well is one of the reasons she has asked not to be identified by her full name here.
Her standard tip is around $5, whether the bill is $50 or $100. (This is up from $1 or $2, the amount she’d drop when she first started dining out as a college student in Indiana.) There have been times when she hasn’t left a tip at all — not because service was bad, but just because she didn’t feel like tipping that day.
Sam knows the amount she chooses to tip isn’t the norm. In fact, one of the reasons she doesn’t think she needs to tip is because she believes everyone else tips enough to make up for it. “They’re making $5 off of me and the next person they’ll get like $25, $30, and that’s all going to their pocket, so what’s the difference?” she says. “I’d rather spend that money on other things.”
Sam says her friends all tell her that she should tip at least 18 percent, but she just doesn’t care that much. “I’m not going to be rude and say I don’t care, but I actually really don’t care,” she says. “That’s not my concern. I don’t know you. You chose that profession.”
Studies say that when it comes to bad tippers, most are just people who don’t know any better. According to Michael Lynn, a tipping expert at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, 40 percent of people aren’t aware that they should be tipping between 15 and 20 percent. “My guess is that’s true for most people,” he says. “You have to know the norm.”
It’s true that some bad tippers, according to Lynn, can’t afford it. “They may not have the money, or they have so little money that the alternative uses of it are more important to them than the social approval that comes from tipping,” he says.
A recent report from CreditCards.com supports the idea that bad tipping correlates with lower incomes. It claims that millennials are the worst generation of tippers (with 10 percent of millennials surveyed admitting to not tipping restaurant servers at all) and theorizes that adults under 37 have less money than older people and therefore tip less. But voluntary, informed bad tippers like Sam can afford to tip — they just don’t. For the birds.
Anti-tipping sentiment has naturally found a home on Reddit, the popular venue for unpopular opinions. “If you want more money get a better job,” reads one comment on a thread asking the bad tippers of the internet to explain themselves. Another Reddit commenter thinks that a tip is the server’s to gain or lose, not a required cost of dining out. “I have absolutely no problem leaving nothing as a tip if I feel that the service didn’t warrant one,” the commenter writes.
James, 22, who lives in midwestern Canada, where it’s customary to tip between 15 and 20 percent, is against tipping on principle. “I feel no pressure to give a tip because I think customers supporting the ridiculous low wages are preposterous,” he says. “The establishment should be paying a living wage for a professional server, and I am of the opinion that when this happens service will go up rather than down.”
When James dines out, which he does a few times a week, he says he plays a rounding game with the bill at the end of the meal. “I will add a few dollars and round it to an even number, say a $36.87 meal being tipped $3.13 to make $40.00,” he explains. “This isn’t because I want to tip, it just gives me a little mental math game and I like even numbers.”
James isn’t alone in recognizing tipping as a problem. To be sure, tipping as a system is bad: It fosters sexual harassment, worsens racial inequalities, and encourages worker exploitation. Because of this, some restaurants have signed on to the growing no-gratuity movement, led in part by New York restaurateur Danny Meyer. But at most restaurants, diners are still expected to add a standard 20 percent to their restaurant bill. For servers, tips aren’t bonus money — they’re money they depend on to make a living on top of a wage that can be as low as a few bucks an hour. That not all diners pay up is just one more problem with tipping.
One need only Google “bad tippers” to see that money and age aren’t the sole factors contributing to bad tips. While Reddit users can freely and anonymously display their disdain for tipping, bad tippers with public profiles are covered on both entertainment blogs and local news sites. Tiger Woods, Sean Penn, Barbra Streisand, and Madonna are all rumored bad tippers. They’re not principled millennials, and presumably they have the money to add 20 percent to their restaurant tabs, so for people in this category, is not tipping well simply an inexplicable character flaw?
Lynn says the more “puzzling” question isn’t why people don’t tip, but why they would tip at all. To provide some explanation, he created a “motivational framework” for tipping in a 2015 paper. It proposes five different reasons why a person might tip: a desire to help servers; to reward servers; to secure future good service; to gain social approval or self-esteem; or merely to fulfill a sense of obligation. “These positive motivations for tipping are opposed by a desire to keep the tip money for other uses and a dislike of the status differences implied and created by tipping,” Lynn concludes. In other words, the desire to keep that money and a general discomfort with tipping can conflict with all of those good reasons to tip. And for bad tippers, those feelings completely trump the fact that tipping is the right thing to do.
The shame of not tipping, or tipping badly, compels most of us to hand over the money we’re expected to. But deliberately bad tippers are impervious to social shaming. They’re not concerned with future service, and they aren’t interested in providing a reward for a job well done. Some may find tipping to be fundamentally wrong, but maybe, actually, they’d just rather... not.
Monica Burton is Eater’s associate restaurant editor. Kevin VQ Dam is an illustrator and designer based in Oakland, CA.
Editor: Hillary Dixler Canavan