The Price of Service

Navigating America's Tipping Culture

The practice of tipping in America has a long and intriguing history that has evolved over centuries. Tipping, voluntarily giving money to service workers beyond their standard wage, has become deeply ingrained in American culture.

However, its origins are not as straightforward as one might assume.

The roots of tipping in the United States can be traced back to the 19th century, 

a period marked by the transformation of social norms and economic structures.

In the early 19th century, the custom of tipping was relatively uncommon in the United States. The practice was more widespread and culturally ingrained in Europe, especially in England, where it formed a notable part of social etiquette.

The evolution of tipping practices in America was influenced by a variety of elements, such as social class dynamics, the influx of immigrants, and the adoption of customs from Europe.

As the 19th century progressed, tipping gradually gained traction in the United States, primarily within the context of luxury services.

The rise of tipping in America can be linked to the burgeoning hospitality industry. Influenced by European customs,

wealthy Americans began to tip waitstaff and hotel employees to showcase their affluence.

This act of tipping was seen as a demonstration of generosity and a means of ensuring better service. The trend quickly spread, becoming more widespread in urban centers and high-end establishments.

The cultural significance of tipping in America extends beyond a mere transactional exchange. It reflects societal attitudes toward class distinctions and economic disparities.

Tipping gradually became the social norm, a gesture in which customers and service workers both participated. Tipping, in this context, was not just about rewarding good service but also about maintaining social harmony and acknowledging the contributions of service industry workers.

Over the decades, tipping has evolved into a complex and somewhat contentious practice. While it was once viewed as rewarding exceptional service, it is rightfully now criticized for perpetuating income inequality.


Service workers, particularly in hospitality and food service industries, live and die on tips to supplement their wages and companies on paying pennies for labor.

This reliance on gratuities has led to debates about fair wages, with proponents arguing that a tip-based system allows for more significant earning potential for exceptional service.

At the same time, opponents contend that it leaves workers vulnerable to economic uncertainties, moves costs from the business to the consumer, and creates a hostile environment where customers feel forced to compensate for a business’s low pay.

Jonathan splits his time as a server between two high-end sister restaurants in Atlanta.

“Look, I think American tipping culture is stupid, but I can pull down over $1,000 in a good weekend, and there is no way on hell I would earn that much with a ‘livable salary.’

I started at Shoney’s, working off-hours weekday shifts, and have been doing this for 20 years. Now, people come here to see me. Yes, I understand the system is fucked, but it’s not going to change, and for many of us, it’s working just fine.”

While he is not alone in these beliefs, he only represents the top of the range, with most food and beverage, hospitality, and an increasing number of other workers barely making enough to survive.

The cultural dynamics surrounding tipping in America have also been influenced by the diverse immigrant communities that have shaped the nation’s identity. In many cultures, tipping is not a traditional practice, and immigrants may find themselves navigating the nuances of American tipping culture.

This cultural diversity adds a layer of complexity to the already intricate tapestry of tipping in the United States.

Tipping has both advocates and critics, and the debate over its merits and drawbacks remains a prominent feature of discussions surrounding the service industry. 

One of the primary arguments in favor of tipping is that it incentivizes service workers to deliver exceptional service.

In theory, the prospect of earning tips encourages employees to go above and beyond their basic job requirements, creating a positive feedback loop where customers receive better service in return for their generosity.

However, the reality is more nuanced. Critics of tipping argue that it places an unfair burden on customers to compensate for inadequate wages in the industry.

This system can result in income instability for workers who depend heavily on tips, as their earnings fluctuate based on factors beyond their control, such as customer mood and economic downturns.

Moreover, tipping can perpetuate inequality within the service industry.

 Studies have shown that tipping amounts are often influenced by race, gender, and physical attractiveness.

This can lead to disparities in earnings, with specific demographic groups receiving more generous tips than others. The inherently subjective nature of tipping leaves room for bias, intentional or not, to impact the income of service workers.

Despite any potential benefits, the cons of tipping have led many to advocate for alternative models, such as a service charge included in the bill or a more equitable distribution of wages within the industry.

In contrast to the United States, European tipping practices exhibit considerable variation from country to country. Diverse cultural norms, historical influences, and economic structures shape the European approach to tipping.

Cash On The Table

Cash On The Table | Image by Jerbear

While tipping is generally a customary practice in Europe, the conventions and expectations surrounding gratuities differ significantly from those in the United States.

One notable distinction is the attitude toward the service industry wages. In many European countries, service workers receive a more substantial base wage, and tipping is viewed as a discretionary bonus rather than a necessary supplement to income.

The reliance on tips to make ends meet, as seen in the United States, is less prevalent in Europe, contributing to a more stable income for service workers.

Tipping percentages tend to be lower in all of Europe compared to the United States. In many European countries, a service charge is often included in the bill, eliminating the need for customers to calculate and leave a separate tip.

This practice simplifies the transaction process and ensures service workers receive a predictable income. However, it can also lead to less direct communication between customers and service providers regarding the quality of service.

Culturally, Europeans may approach tipping with a more laid-back attitude. While tipping for good service is appreciated, it is not always expected or deemed obligatory.

In some countries, rounding up the bill or leaving a small amount as a token of appreciation is common. Still, the pressure to adhere to specific tipping percentages is generally lower than in the United States.

“Only when something is excellent or if someone went out of their way to do something,” was Joe Tebbet’s response on when he would tip.



“Here in England, the pay is higher, plus we have actual healthcare.”

Joe worked as a bartender for some time and several other service industry jobs, and while he stressed that he doesn’t think it’s the best career choice, it is one that he and most of his countrymen believe should cover the basics.

The European perspective on tipping also reflects a societal emphasis on social safety nets and workers’ rights. The provision of a living wage is seen as a fundamental responsibility of employers, reducing the need for a tipping system that compensates for inadequate base pay.

This contrasts with the American model, where tipping plays a significant role in determining the overall income of service industry workers. The history of tipping in America is a testament to the ever-changing dynamics of societal norms, economic structures, and cultural influences.

What began as a European import in the 19th century has evolved into a deeply ingrained aspect of American culture, now with mostly negative implications for the service industry.


Comparatively, the European approach to tipping offers an intriguing alternative. With a focus on providing stable wages and incorporating service charges into bills, European countries have created a system that differs significantly from the tip-dependent model in the United States.

This contrast invites reflection on the role of tipping in shaping the dynamics between customers and service workers and its broader implications for societal values and economic structures. How the United States could move to that model will require a large cultural shift.

We, as Americans, will need to believe that everyone who works a full-time job deserves, at the bare minimum, to make a living wage for the area in which they work.

Moreover, we will need to accept that the cost of things will rise if not done in conjunction with increasing social safety nets, socialized healthcare for all, and stronger collective bargaining power from the workers.

The complexities of the current tipping system are unsustainable; change is coming, and how that plays out depends on whether we start now to implement needed legislative changes or wait until it explodes. Given our history, I guess that we will wait until we reach a tipping point.