‘A Little Bit of the Wild West’: Navigating the Changing Rules on When to Tip
6 mins read

‘A Little Bit of the Wild West’: Navigating the Changing Rules on When to Tip

If he were talking to a visitor or newcomer to Canada, Michael von Massow would have difficulty describing our tipping culture.

“It’s a bit of the Wild West,” von Massow said. A food economics professor at the University of Guelph studies tipping practices and their impact on consumers.

“If someone came here and said, ‘Mike, what’s going on with tipping in Canada?’ It would be difficult for me to give them a straight answer about where you tip and where you don’t tip, and how much to tip.”

It’s hard to know the rules because they are unwritten and change quickly.

Some of us don’t know that we are expected to tip until we are handed the payment machine and are prompted. Both “tip bloat” and “tip creep” are attributed to this technology, von Massow said – the first references require larger quantities, forcing us to tilt more; the latter means that more companies and services expect tips when in the past they did not.

This led to tip fatigue. A survey conducted by the Angus Reid Institute last year found that 83 per cent of Canadians believe too many businesses ask for tips. Sixty-two percent of respondents said that prompts ask them to tip more.

Most Canadians now prefer higher wages for workers over a tipped model, according to the survey. Interestingly, preferences were almost identical among people who had worked for free in the past.

Survey respondents said the meaning of this gesture had been lost. The original intention to reward good service has been replaced by the belief that employers use it to make up for lower wages, say 73 per cent of Canadians.

Von Massow agreed – to some extent the responsibility for paying well was transferred to the consumer.

Because it’s an unwritten social norm, it’s hard to know what to do. We can hear from our friends or talk online. But that’s not always fair to the consumer, said Marc Mentzer, professor of human resources and organizational behavior at the University of Saskatchewan’s Edwards School of Business.

“There’s a tendency on the Internet to encourage people to be generous – you know, often it’s the people serving in restaurants who suggest a higher percentage,” Mentzer said.

“I think people who take the position, ‘I’m fed up with this’, tend not to post on social media. So it’s biased to look at social media to see what the consensus is.”

For decades, Mentzer said, the expected tip for dining out was 15 percent. This etiquette came into use around the 1960s and lasted for about 50 years until payment machines became more common – then the Covid-19 pandemic changed the game again.

Mentzer said many people sympathized with the hardships of the restaurant and service industries during the pandemic and began tipping these workers more generously.

“When the pandemic started, there was some speculation that maybe this would make people reconsider how irrational it was to tip as a way to pay employees,” he said.

“There was hope that maybe it would cause some sort of cultural reset. And as we saw, it had the opposite effect. This has resulted in tipping becoming more entrenched and expanding into new occupations at higher rates.”

In practice, tips often fall short of their intended purpose. It fails in two areas, von Massow said.

When it comes to rewarding good service, it doesn’t show in how we actually tip – we’re people of habit.

“Research shows little evidence of a relationship between service quality and tip size,” von Massow said. “Most of us tip within a very narrow window.”

Second, expectations placed on servers can lead to customer profiling based on race, gender, age, or family status. If an employee doesn’t think you can tip well, von Massow said, they may not provide the same level of service.

“People of color, women – especially younger women, families – all receive worse service,” he said. “A middle-aged white guy like me, especially if I’m wearing a suit, will get great service whether I tip well or not.”

Even deciding not to order alcohol can change the waiter’s perception of you, von Massow said.

He noted that ordering alcohol results in a much higher bill, and therefore the tip percentage also increases significantly.

There are also pitfalls for servers.

Some people have to tolerate bad behavior and harassment to avoid losing tips, their main source of income, Mentzer noted. “Some restaurant managers may play favorites with their staff, giving them the best shifts and the most tables,” von Massow said. Two employees in the same position may have significantly different earnings.

Ultimately, consumers should take control and tip where they feel comfortable, both Mentzer and von Massow said. Budgets are now tighter for many Canadians facing rising costs of living.

“Tipping is not a right, it is a social norm; you have total control,” von Massow said.

“As Canadians, we need to overcome our guilt and say, ‘If I have a good experience, I will tip and decide for myself what is reasonable.’ And if you go into a restaurant and their incentives are 25, 30, and 35 percent, and you think that’s outrageous, take 10 seconds to opt out and tip them what you think is reasonable.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 11, 2024.

Nina Dragicevic, Canadian Press