Do Emotions Steer Your Decisions To Tip?

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?

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