Any tips on tipping?

The plight of an international student new to the tipping culture in America
Sept 2020
Aditya
G.
Mechanical Engineering

Picture having dinner at a restaurant with some friends. There’s a fun conversation going on right up to the point where the bill arrives. Perhaps it's only me, but I feel that in the moments that follow, the conversation dies down a little as everyone enters their tipping ‘headspaces’. A few take their own initiative and start doing the quick math needed to find out how much they need to tip. Others may take surreptitious glances at their neighbors to see how much they’re tipping. After all, this might be one instance as a student where you want to be in the middle of the curve – perhaps not tipping the most, but probably not the least either.

Being international, several aspects of American society and culture were new to me when I first came here two and a half years ago (extremely tall glasses of water which are at least 60% ice, anyone?). While I’ve gotten used to most of them and appreciate several, the murky tipping culture here continues to sporadically give me grief. After all, tipping was minimal back home in India and hence, its significance here took some getting used to.

As I’ve come to see, the importance of tipping is that it’s a way to show gratitude for an individual providing a service, especially when tips may make up a significant part of their income. What confused me during my first few months in the US was the ambiguity of proper tipping etiquette. Which service was I tipping for? Did my tip extend to the food preparation, or was it limited to the service only? How much was I supposed to tip? Heck, did delivery charges include tip? The fact that I wanted to avoid offending anyone while also keeping an eye on my wallet meant that paying the bill after eating out or ordering in could be a little nerve-racking. Thankfully, over time a combination of helpful friends and personal experiences has given me enough data points on how to deal with most situations in a passably acceptable manner (hopefully).

Tipping at restaurants

First off, if you pick up the food made at the restaurant yourself, you aren’t obligated to pay a tip. I owe a big thanks to Chipotle (which was one of the first American fast-food joints I went to), for making that super clear. After all, they’ve always been kind enough to never leave any space on the bill for a tip. On the other hand, I quickly learned that in restaurants where a server is taking orders and bringing food to the table, I pretty much had to pay a tip (from what I’ve seen between 15-20% is acceptable). As I have advanced through my tipping experiences, I’ve gradually learned to keep an eye out for establishments which include the gratuity in the bill total itself. I’ve seen this happen either when I’ve been part of a big group, or as simply a restaurant policy. In these cases, I don’t pay an extra tip. During my travels, I have learned that the service I receive and the connections I make at cafes is often a function of how much I tipped during my first few visits.  

Tipping can be very stressful. For instance, when you have to deal with the dreaded swivelling registers - as if you really need the rest of the crowd to be checking how much you tip. (Image source.)

Deliveries

The first time I placed an online order, I was quite shocked by the number of additional charges that appeared on the bill. Tax? OK, can’t argue with that. Service fees? Not sure for what, but I was too hungry to bother. Delivery charges? This one threw me for a loop. How could this be different from a tip? But here’s the thing - delivery charges are not a tip. Regardless of how upset you might be with extra charges on a delivery order, the tip is over and above all that, so just accept it – is what I told myself during the first few delivery orders I placed. I’ve also heard of the rumored ‘busy’ fee, which is the Uber surge pricing of delivery fees. Fortunately, I haven’t encountered that one yet. 

So here we are: memories of the uncertainty I felt when I used to get the cheque are now just fleeting. I no longer hesitate for as long as I did two years back when the bill comes along. I am fully aware that I can choose to grumble continuously about tipping and how its ambiguity seems to lend it little sensibility on the surface. However, learning and adjusting to new social constructs is part and parcel of living away from one’s own country - it's pretty much one of the biggest parts of ‘being international’. So banish the negativity, pull out your phone and find out what 15% of that bill is. Happy tipping!