‘Tipflation’ Takes Hold in America but Most People Are Baffled by the Pervasive Practice

By Furney Times

In a society where the ritual of tipping was once a straightforward gesture of gratitude, Americans now find themselves navigating a complex and often contentious landscape of gratuity expectations. A new survey by the Pew Research Center, questioning nearly 12,000 US adults, reveals a nation increasingly uncertain about the norms and necessities of tipping in a changing economic and social environment.

The concept of “tipflation,” a term that encapsulates the escalating frequency and expectation of tipping, is more than anecdotal. A significant 72% of Americans confirm that tipping is expected in more places today than it was five years ago. This shift signals a cultural transformation where the simple act of tipping has evolved into a multifaceted social obligation​​.

But the increased prevalence of tipping scenarios has left many Americans confused, as well as tourists visiting big US cities like New York. Only about a third of Americans feel confident in knowing when (34%) and how much (33%) to tip across different service settings. It’s compounded by divided public opinion on whether tipping is a matter of choice or an obligation. While 21% see it as a discretionary act, 29% view tipping as a requisite part of service interactions, and nearly half (49%) believe it varies by situation, underlining the absence of a universal tipping etiquette​​.

The survey also sheds light on specific attitudes towards tipping practices. A notable 40% of Americans oppose the idea of businesses suggesting tip amounts, whereas only 24% support the guidance. Automatic service charges are even less popular, with 72% disapproving of the practice, including half who strongly oppose it. The findings point to a growing resistance against what many perceive as forced generosity or a covert price increase​​.

Americans’ tipping culture varies across different services. While the majority (92%) consistently tip at sit-down restaurants, a mere 12% do so at fast-casual eateries without table service. This discrepancy highlights a nuanced approach to tipping, influenced by service type and perceived value. The majority of diners (57%) tend to tip 15% or less for an average meal, reflecting either a conservative approach to tipping or a response to the rising costs of dining out. Only a quarter venture beyond the 20% threshold​​.

The survey results also underscore that for most Americans, tipping decisions are primarily driven by the quality of service. About 77% of adults consider service quality a major factor in determining whether and how much to tip, far outweighing other considerations. This emphasis on service quality underscores a fundamental aspect of tipping culture: it’s not merely a transactional obligation but a subjective response to the service experience​​.

This transformation in tipping culture coincides with significant structural and technological shifts. The proliferation of digital payment platforms, which often prompt or suggest tipping options, and the spread of mandatory service charges, are reshaping how Americans interact with tipping protocols. These changes reflect a broader societal trend where traditional practices are being reevaluated and redefined in the context of modern economic realities and technological advancements​​.

Beyond the practical aspects of tipping, this evolving landscape also reflects deeper societal questions about labour, value and equity. As tipping becomes more embedded in various service industries, debate continues over its role in compensating workers and its impact on consumer experience and expectations. 

The Pew Research Center’s study offers a window into a tipping culture in transition. It reveals a society grappling with the expanding scope and significance of tipping, marked by divergent attitudes and practices. As Americans continue to navigate this shifting terrain, the future of tipping remains an open question, influenced by evolving social norms, economic conditions, and technological innovations.

Tipping Experiences in the USA

The following people gave their views and experiences of tipping to Furney Times:

Broadway performer Viveca Chow:

I moved to the USA from Hong Kong to pursue my Broadway performing career, and my global move posed a lot of culture shocks regarding tipping culture.

Being raised in a culture where tipping does not exist, it took years before I finally became a comfortable tipper.

It definitely drove me nuts at first because the exchange rate between HKD and USD is approximately 8HKD:1USD, so it always felt uncomfortable to tip 15% or more since that conversion of the tip was equivalent to the price of one singular meal in Hong Kong back then.

I have been in the USA for 11 years, and now always tip 20% at minimum after learning the in’s and out’s of the service industry and empathising with how challenging it is.

But I still don’t agree with how tipping culture has become something that is mandatory. I feel like the industry should work towards paying workers a livable wage instead.

Christian Miller of Travel Site Discover Italy:

When I was in New York City, I found myself overwhelmed with the amount of tipping that was expected. It seemed like no matter where I went, a tip of at least 15-20% was expected on top of the bill. For someone who lives in a different part of the US where tipping is not so much an expectation, this felt rather strange and intimidating.

My first real experience came with a cab ride I took from the airport to my hotel. The driver gladly accepted the credit card payment and asked for an additional tip on top of it, which was more than 20% of the total fare. Feeling uncertain, I gave him what I thought was a generous amount and thanked him politely for his service.

At the end of my trip, I felt like I had a better understanding of New York’s tipping culture. While it could be intimidating for someone who isn’t used to it, tipping is something that should generally be expected in order to show appreciation for the service provided. With some preparation and knowledge of how much to tip, it can be a pleasant experience for both the customer and the service provider.

But it’s important to keep in mind that tipping should never be mandatory or expected. If the service provided is not up to par, customers should not be obligated to tip as a courtesy. In some cases, it may even be appropriate to provide feedback instead of tipping in order to ensure that service quality can be improved in the future.

I live in Arizona and usually tips are around 10-15%. In my area, tips of 10-15% are usually the norm. Tipping is not as common in Arizona as it is in other parts of the US, but it does still occur. For example, when dining out at restaurants, tipping 15-20% is customary. And when taking a ride share or taxi service, it’s expected to tip the driver between 10-15%.

Travel Writer Rebecca Webber: 

As a Brit, automatically tipping rubs me the wrong way. But on a recent trip to New York, I figured I should be a “good guest” and tip the usual 20% in bars and restaurants as I had on my last New York holiday.

What shocked me on my latest visit to Manhattan is that 20% is now considered a poor tip. Not only that, I was presented with a tablet when buying a pastry at a bakery counter, suggesting a tip of almost 50%. There was no waiter or waitress, so who, and what service, was I tipping?

Sure, tipping culture in the US is different from the UK, but this “tipflation” is out of control, making trips to New York even more expensive.

  • Title photograph shows a restaurant bill at a New York Italian restaurant in September 2024. (Credit: William J. Furney)

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