Do Emotions Steer Your Decisions To Tip?

by Ron Haynes

Back when I was 17 (in 1983), I spent the summer in Guatemala working with a missionary. One of the perks of such a trip was that I would occasionally have a few days to explore the countryside and on one of my excursions, I found myself in Antigua, the old capital. It was spectacular, with its ruins, old colonial churches, street vendors, and beautiful city square. It was there that I met the hordes of locals vying to be my “guia” or guide to the city. Having spent two years studying the Spanish language and discovering that few families conjugate verbs around the dinner table, I was thrilled when one man strode to the front of the group and introduced himself in near perfect English.

“My name is Ramon, sir, and of all the excellent guides here, I alone can speak to you in your native tongue.” He certainly had my attention. My first thought was, do I look that obvious? He went on to explain that he would guide me around the city, showing me its secrets and at the end of the 2 hour tour, I could pay him whatever I thought reasonable. Sounded good to me! I took him up on his offer and we began a great city tour, seeing the monasteries, the convents, and the beautiful Mudejar-influenced Baroque style architecture.

After about two hours, he said, “This is the end of my tour. If you enjoyed yourself, you can pay me whatever you think my services were worth.” I really did enjoy myself and after checking with my host who had accompanied me, I decided to pay him $6 (US). That was a LOT of money in the central Guatemalan highlands in 1983 for two hours of work! But when I looked in my wallet, all I had were twenties. He didn’t appear to be the sort that carried change and the embarrassment of trying to find someone to break a twenty wasn’t anything I looked forward to, so … I just gave him a $20.

He was stunned.

He started jabbering in Spanish and for a moment I thought I had broken some rule of etiquette and embarrassed HIM. He regained his composure (as did my host) and in a quivering voice said to me, “Sir, you are so generous. No one has ever been this generous to me, may I show you more of the city? This time I will give you the good tour!” He became very friendly and was obviously happy with the amount. It wasn’t as though I didn’t want to give it and honestly, I liked the guy. Having heard him speak of his family, I felt somewhat like I was helping a friend.

Yet, in another way, I felt like I was paying someone to be my friend and it made me feel a little cheap … event thought the amount was considered substantial. Was the friendship we’d developed real or merely financial? Could it be both?

I ask myself these types of questions every time I see a tip jar sitting on a table, next to a cash register, or on the shelf at the drive thru window at Starbucks. I’m a generous tipper, having lived on tips while working as a waiter after college. I don’t mind tipping someone and I even tip well when the service isn’t that great. It drives my wife crazy.

Tipping doesn’t bother me. What DOES bother me is that even though I formerly worked for tips, I really don’t understand what’s being bought or sold. Is a tip a wage? A gift? Charity? I’m not talking about the tax implications, I’m talking about the social implications. What IS a tip?

The most common explanation is that a tip is a reward for good service, even though it’s commonly thought that TIPS was an acronym for To Insure Prompt Service. It doesn’t matter. Research doesn’t bear this out! Most research I’ve seen shows that the correlation between service and the size of the tip is weak at best. So why do tips exist? Why do servers in US restaurants receive over $44 BILLION in tips?

Most research that I’ve read confirms that tipping began as a reward, but quickly became a social norm. Most people today tip because they want to

  • Show gratitude
  • Conform to societal norms
  • Help supplement a server’s low income

Why would people want to supplement a server’s income? Probably because it’s human nature to feel anxiety or stress when we perceive an unequal relationship with another person. Tipping restores that balance in our minds. With a society considered to be extroverted (United States) or with significant status differences (India), or more masculine in nature (Mexico), tipping tends to occur more often, to a wider variety of positions, and in great amounts than societies that place high value on equality (New Zealand) or that emphasize social relationships over economic ones (Japan).

Did you know:

  • In Bangladesh, restaurant tipping rates are only 5 percent?
  • In Japan, tips could be considered insulting?
  • In Paraguay, tip is the same word as bribe (propina)?
  • In Hungary, it’s customary to tip your doctor?

Have you ever seen a couple get their check at a restaurant, leave some money on the table and quickly leave? If that happened in the US, chances are good that they were embarrassed at the size of the tip … and not because it was so large. On the other hand, if you were in the United Kingdom, the English don’t like to make a big show so they’ll typically round up the bill and leave it on the table.

Emotions certainly DID steer my decision to tip my guide that July day in Guatemala. I had made a friend and I didn’t want to embarrass him or me by looking like a cheap wad who wanted his change.

Have emotions ever driven your tipping decisions?

About the author

Ron Haynes has written 988 articles on The Wisdom Journal.

The founder and editor of The Wisdom Journal in 2007, Ron has worked in banking, distribution, retail, and upper management for companies ranging in size from small startups to multi-billion dollar corporations. He graduated Suma Cum Laude from a top MBA program and currently is a Human Resources and Management consultant, helping companies know how employees will behave in varying situations and what motivates them to action, assisting firms in identifying top talent, and coaching managers and employees on how to better communicate and make the workplace MUCH more enjoyable. If you'd like help in these areas, contact Ron using the contact form at the top of this page or at 870-761-7881.



Yes, emotions surely steer my decisions to tip though it depends on quality of service and on amicability of a waiter. In Russia customary restaurant tipping rates are 10% of a bill amount and if service is good I usually go with it, but if service is mediocre or bad then there is a chance that waiter will not receive any tip. It’s not a big deal actually and sometimes I tip even if service wasn’t up to my usual standards if I’m in a good mood.


Wow, 10 percent in the USA would just make the server angry! Today, I think most servers expect at least 20 percent.

Money Beagle

When planning to dine out, I typically plan on spending more than what the menu would show, simply because of tips. The way I look at it is that if the tips weren’t built in, the wages would be higher and the menu prices would be higher, so it’s largely a wash. Unless you decide to tip bigger, in which case emotion definitely plays a role, as I will tip bigger if the service was above average.

Good story. He probably remembers you, too!


I don’t disagree. It all boils down to economics but at least we get *some* say in our costs!


It may be a little crude/baser but ask any hot bartender if she thinks emotions play a role lol


I don’t think it’s emotions … it’s probably something else coming into play in that circumstance!


As most people do in college, I worked in a restaurant. I looked forward to the tip and I would actually work hard to try and get the maximum amount possible. I think today when in restaurants I tip well when deserved and a set percentage when the service is average. Why I do this? I think it is more the norm than the emotion, although the emotion made the decision of how I should tip. I guess I could go in circles with this one.

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