Americans are confused, frustrated by new tipping culture, study finds

Young waiter using a digital tablet to show the menu to a customer. Modern business customer services.

The state of tipping in America is, in a word, a mess.

Americans are divided and confused over when to leave gratuities and how much to tip for all kinds of services, according to a new study published Thursday by the Pew Research Center - and many don't like recent trends such as added service fees and suggested tipping amounts.

Subscribe to The Post Most newsletter for the most important and interesting stories from The Washington Post.

Drew DeSilver, the senior writer of the report, says the lack of consensus isn't surprising given the ad hoc nature of the tipping regime in the United States. "Tipping is one of those things in American society where there aren't clear rules," he said. "There's not a single generally accepted way of doing things, like with traffic lights, where we all know that red means stop."

If it seems to you that almost everywhere these days, from coffee shops to takeout spots, there's an added service fee, you're not alone. People are feeling "tipflation" - the proliferating number of workers to whom consumers are expected to pay gratuities - with 72 percent saying that tipping is expected in more places today than it was five years ago.

Most don't like the addition of "service charges," the amounts that many restaurants and other businesses have tacked on to customers' tabs under various names, often to cover the higher costs of things like food and labor - without having to raise their prices. An overwhelming 72 percent of people oppose them, with only 10 percent saying they favor them.

And they are also more likely to oppose a suggested tip amount than favor it, something businesses have recently taken to putting on touch-screens at takeout spots or on printed bills - ostensibly to make calculating them easier, but often used as a prod to get customers to shell out. Forty percent of Americans oppose such suggested tips, while 24 percent favor them. (About a third neither oppose nor favor them.)

But with more opportunities to tip, and with some restaurants and other businesses offering prompts, there's still plenty of confusion about whether customers should leave a gratuity - and if so, how much.

Thirty-four percent of U.S. adults say it's "extremely" or "very" easy to know whether to tip for different kinds of services these days, and a similar share, 33 percent, say the same about knowing how much to tip.

Interestingly, education and money aren't always a help in this department: People with higher incomes and more education are more likely to express confusion about when it's appropriate to tip, as well as what they should be leaving, according to the poll.

While these recent and fundamental shifts in tipping might be confusing and unwelcoming, the survey also indicates that the practice in the bigger picture is divisive - Americans are not even on the same page about what tipping is. Twenty-nine percent of Americans think of tipping as an obligation, while 21 percent see it as a choice. Forty-nine percent, though, say it depends on the situation. Younger and more highly educated and wealthier people were more likely to see a tip as an obligation, Pew found.

Advances in technology - like delivery apps and tablets at counters where you can tap to leave a gratuity - might be convenient, but they are contributing to the uncertainty. "It's different than having a jar on the counter - people feel like they are presented with all these tipping options - but does that mean you are expected to tip?" DeSilver said. "We haven't as a society settled on the rules for that."

When DeSilver went looking to see what kind of guidance people were being offered, whether in etiquette guides or in popular media, the results were all over the place, he said.

And when Americans do open their wallets, it seems that many are, well, not great tippers.

There are no hard-and-fast rules about how much to tip anywhere, of course. The standard, widely recommended rate has crept up steadily - while 15 percent used to be standard, many guides now suggest that 20 is the norm.

But apparently, not everyone abides by that, according to the Pew poll. Given a scenario in which they experienced "average, but not exceptional" food and service at a restaurant, 57 percent of people said they would tip 15 percent or less. Two percent said they would leave their server nothing. Just about a quarter said they would leave 20 percent or more.

Wealthier people tend to be better tippers, the survey found, while older people are slightly more likely to tip 15 percent or less - perhaps reflecting a holdover from the earlier standards on a sufficient gratuity.

It's not just customers who seem dissatisfied with the American tipping system, in which workers who regularly receive tips have an hourly wage that's lower than standard minimums. Some labor activists say the system creates inequities and leaves workers more vulnerable to the whims of their employers. They also argue that relying on tips makes women - who make up the majority of the tipped workforce - more likely to suffer sexual harassment or abuse from customers and managers.

The Pew Research Center survey was conducted Aug. 7-27 among 11,945 U.S. adults through Pew's American Trends Panel and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 1.4 percentage points.

Related Content

Panda diplomacy to live on? China's Xi hints U.S. may get more bears.

What does the Kennedy name mean now?

How CDC's new director is trying to regain trust shattered by covid