When you go out to a bar or restaurant, tipping is easy to figure out: 15-20% if nothing goes wrong.
Maybe you tip more if you got comped for a drink or had exceptional, white-glove treatment. You only stiff someone if the service was gratuitously awful or if you’re a big jerk.
We tip this way in America because we know service workers don’t earn much here, and the bulk of their income is derived from tips. The guilt of leaving a piddling tip just because a waiter seems a little distracted or didn't bring refills hastily isn’t worth it for most of us.
But the tipping standard when it comes to service workers outside of those situations can more difficult to figure out. Is 15-20% also the standard for food delivery? What about hair stylists, masseuses and manicurists? And what about those who bag our groceries or carry suitcases in and out of a hotel? Are you really expected to tip them 20% of your groceries or hotel stay?
To address all of this, some businesses have begun getting rid of tipping entirely. New York-based restaurateur is the most prominent recent example in the food industry. "As a customer, isn’t it less complicated that the service he performs is included in the price of your shoes?" he wrote in making the announcement. Then there's Uber, which, having had its eye on non-American riders from its creation, never had tipping in the first place.
This anti-tipping wave has made the practice, where it remains, even more fraught.
So I reached out to The Emily Post Institute, America's premier arbiter of etiquette, to get some answers. Lizzie Post, the Institute's creative manager and the great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post, after whom the Institute is named, said it does not have an official position on tipping. Rather it sees itself as a "social barometer," she said. It also maintains a tipping guide for those who need advice.
“What we see going on is what we try to put out there—what's to be expected as the American norm," said Post.
Here are suggestions from the Institute for the five-most-common tipping situations:
- Anyone who helps with luggage or vehicle, like a valet ($2-$5)
- Hotel housekeepers ($2-$5 a night)
- Hair, nail and facial stylists (15-20%)
- Restroom attendant ($0.50-$3 "depending on level of service")
Meanwhile, here are some people the Institute says you don't have to tip, unless they provide exceptional service:
- Hosts and maître d's
- Busboys and grocery baggers
- Coffee baristas, or anyone working at a fast-food place with a tip jar. ("Baristas, sandwich shop and other counter workers are all making at least minimum wage for non-gratuities workers, which is why the tip is optional," Post said.)
And, your tip should not depend on the level of service. Post says if your experience stunk, you should notify the manager, but not respond by withholding money.
Post says the Institute hasn’t altered its tipping recommendations as a result of these changes—and doesn’t plan to, unless there is a sudden sea change or new law on the books.
"I don’t think it's going to move in one direction," Lizzie Post, the Institute's creative manager and Emily Post's great-great-granddaughter, told me by phone. "Unless something comes down from a government standpoint…over time is how we decide these things happen in America."
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.