Why We Tip: Survey Shows Racial Divide

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When African Americans dine out, the service had better measure up if the server is expecting a good tip.


That's among the findings of a recent poll by The Root on attitudes and habits regarding tipping. African-American respondents were much more likely than whites (30 percent vs. 15 percent) to say that one should tip as a "reward for good service." They were less likely than whites to cite the low wages that waitstaff earn (33 percent vs 42 percent) as the reason they tip.

These findings were among a number of differences in tipping habits across cultural lines revealed in The Root's online survey. The 10-question survey generated a total of 842 responses between July 14 and July 19, 2011, including answers from 646 blacks and 121 whites.

The vast majority (89 percent) of all respondents indicated that they tipped "all the time," with 11 percent responding "most of the time." A majority (68 percent) said that they learned to tip from family and friends, as opposed to etiquette books or people who had worked as waitstaff.

But when it came to the purpose of tipping and whether there were ever reasons not to tip, clear differences could be found along racial lines. A large percentage (upwards of 40 percent) of both blacks and whites agreed that "rude," "incompetent" or "horrible" service was an acceptable reason to stiff servers.

Whites, however, were more forgiving of transgressions by waiters and eateries, with 49 percent saying that they would "always tip" no matter how bad the food or service. Only 37 percent of blacks said that they felt the same way. A much larger percentage of blacks (50 percent) indicated that there would be no tip for waitstaff whom they regarded as rude or inept.

Are black patrons too demanding? Are white patrons pushovers?

Jerome Rabow, a professor of sociology who lectures on race and ethnic relations at UCLA and California State University, Northridge, says that the answers may be more complicated. Blacks may be justified in their greater propensity to value service over supplementing servers' incomes, he says.


Based on his own experience waiting tables as a young man and the feedback he receives from his students who are waiters today, Rabow says that black people are often perceived as poor tippers. In turn, blacks often receive poor service, such as being ignored or overlooked, receiving food after diners who arrive later or being greeted brusquely by waitstaff, he says.

"Blacks may tip and reward for good service because they're so accustomed to poor service," says Rabow, who is white. " 'Here I am, a poor black man, but I made it in the world. I made it by hard work, being polite, keeping my nose clean. Here's this poor person, the server, who isn't being polite … I'm not going to teach him anything by rewarding poor service.' "


On the other hand, white people are more likely to receive good service and are socialized to expect it. Even when they receive poor service, their providing a tip is often like a form of charity, Rabow says. "Charity and service can be a big motivator of people of privilege, either because of skin color or because of wealth or education. You want to be charitable to those you see as lesser," Rabow says.

White respondents to The Root's survey were indeed more likely to emphasize the lowly pay of most waitstaff as motivation for their tipping, even if service was poor. The purpose of a tip is "hopefully to encourage better service, but most servers are working very hard on a small wage and I see it as part of the cost of the meal," wrote a white respondent.


"Ideally, tips would encourage stellar service," wrote another, "but it is unreasonable not to leave at least 15 percent, given that most of a waiter's income comes from tips. For most, the hourly base wage is $2 to $4."

Black respondents to the survey, while not unsympathetic to the plight of underpaid waiters and waitresses, often spoke of tipping as a way to show appreciation and respect for quality service. In response to the question, "Why do you tip?" answers by blacks included the following:

"To show your appreciation for good service and a great dining experience."

"To express how much [I] appreciate the waitstaff's treatment of me and my family while we are at the establishment."


"I tip 25 percent to reward service that is above and beyond, 20 percent to encourage the wait service to continue its good service or only 10 percent if the service was lacking."

A bigger issue may be the eating public's overall lack of knowledge about how much to tip and how to calculate tip amounts, says Bjorn Hanson, dean of the Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management at New York University.


Forty-three percent of respondents to The Root's survey said that they usually tipped 20 to 25 percent of the total bill, with 57 percent of whites and 40 percent of blacks saying that they did so. A greater percentage of blacks (44 percent) than whites (34 percent) said that they usually tipped anywhere from 15 to 19 percent of the total bill.

By today's standards, however, a 20 percent tip is the industry norm, says Hanson. "What's happened is 15 percent has become average," he says. "Twenty-five percent or more is required to be considered generous or reflective of outstanding service.


"Labor law allows employers to pay less than minimum wage to employees who receive tips," Hanson says. "So what has become an unfortunate reality is that if guests or patrons do not tip or tip low percentages, employees could be getting less than minimum wage."

But customers should do their math, he added. The tip percentage should be based on just the cost of food — before taxes and without counting any alcohol on the bill.


That being said, it would be a mistake to make generalizations about any one group's behavior when it comes to tipping — or anything else, says Steve Dublanica, author of Keep the Change: A Clueless Tipper's Quest to Become the Guru of the Gratuity and Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip — Confessions of a Cynical Waiter, a book based on his popular blog of the same name, in which he dished about the trials and tribulations of his nine years as a waiter in New York City.

"There is a stereotype that women are bad tippers. Women tend to order less, have smaller checks, smaller tips, but still in the 15 to 20 percent range," he says. "[But] I've had guys get salads and women who order porterhouse steaks. "


Tipping says much more about the individual paying the bill than it reflects on the expertise or character of the waiter, Dublanica says. So no matter who you are or what you plan to order, when you patronize your favorite eatery, tip and tip well, he advises.

"If you can't afford to tip, you can't afford to eat out," he says.

Dara Sharif is a writer, an editor, a graduate student and a member of The Root's editorial team.


Watch our man-on-the-street video about tipping habits and read a firsthand account about tipping from the viewpoint of a former waiter at Check, Please: Black Folks and Tipping.