Americans say tipping culture is going too far

Consumers are frustrated with touch-screen requests for tips in strange places

Lesson #
January 15, 2024
Filed:

It can be hard to know when to tip in any culture. But tipping has increased in the United States since the pandemic. New touch-screen payment systems often encourage a minimum tip of 20%. But now, consumers are increasingly frustrated with requests to leave tips and are starting to cut back on the habit.


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Transcript

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If you order take-out food, do you leave a tip? How about if you just buy a single cup of coffee to go? Welcome to the new tipping dilemma, thanks to touch screens at checkout

Lesson summary

Hi there again, it’s Jeff and this is another Plain English lesson, this time number 640. JR is the producer. He makes sure that the audios, transcripts, videos, exercises, and all the other lesson resources are up on the web site for you. Today’s lesson is at PlainEnglish.com/640.

Here at Plain English, you know what we do. We help you improve your English with stories about current events and trending topics. By learning about the world, you’ll also learn new words and learn to express new ideas in English.

And today’s story is all about tipping in the United States. It might be confusing for you as a visitor. But don’t feel bad, because even Americans say that tipping has gone too far.

In the second half of today’s lesson, I’ll show you how to use the expression “once in a while.” Remember, you can read along with the transcript at PlainEnglish.com/640.

Ready? Let’s get going.

Tipping culture is going too far, many Americans say

Welcome to the tipping backlash. More than most countries, America tips its service workers. But consumers say that in recent years, tipping has gotten out of control. And customers are starting to cut back on the amount, and frequency, of their tips.

Let’s take a step back. Tipping is expected in restaurants in the United States because of the minimum wage. There’s a minimum wage for hourly workers; it’s $7.25 per hour, higher in some areas. But restaurant workers are often exempt from these rules. That means, they can earn just a few dollars per hour because much of their compensation comes from tips.

So when you sit down at a restaurant, you are expected to tip the servers and bartenders because they can make less than the minimum wage. That’s just part of the deal. You know that going in. Tipping is also expected whenever you get very personal service. When you get your hair cut, for example, or if you get a massage or a manicure, you’re also expected to leave a tip.

In other places, tipping has generally been small and very optional. Drop a few coins in a tip jar, or a dollar if you’re feeling generous. And of course, many places don’t accept tips at all.

But two things have changed recently. The first thing to change was the pandemic. During COVID-19, many of us got to work from home and limit our contact with other people. In the U.S., white collar employment held steady. We kept our jobs; we kept our incomes. But the same was not true for hourly service workers.

Many service workers lost a large part of their incomes due to social distancing. So tipping increased. It was a way to acknowledge the risk and the working conditions of the people serving us in public. The pandemic is behind us now, but many people have gotten used to leaving more generous tips.

The second, and arguably bigger change, is the proliferation of touch screens for credit card payments. The new systems allow you to add a tip to your credit card payment.

The problem is with the design of the screen and how companies use these new systems. Many screens have big buttons on them suggesting a tip. Stores that didn’t use to ask for a tip—or where tipping was small and optional—they are now specifically asking every consumer to leave a tip—and the minimum suggested tip is often 15 to 20 percent. The highest option is sometimes 30 percent or higher.

I’m talking about cafés, bakeries, and counter-service restaurants. Before, it would never have occurred to me to tip when picking up a pizza. Now, consumers are being asked—many say pressured—to provide a 20 percent tip or more, even when they don’t get table service.

And it’s not just food service, either. Even stores that wouldn’t have previously allowed tips are asking consumers to pay extra. Repair shops, plant shops, dry cleaners, and other retail stores are now requesting tips at the time of payment.

The screens add social anxiety to the consumers. Yes , there is the option to skip the gratuity or to add a smaller amount. But customers say they feel pressured to leave one of the suggested tips. It feels awkward to decline to tip when asked: the employee is standing right there, watching you as you make your choice—and the people in line behind you might see, too. At the same time , though, it feels unfair to be pressured into leaving a large tip.

Tipping frustration shows up in delivery apps, too. Most apps charge a delivery fee. But then they ask you to tip the driver. Consumers are left scratching their heads. Why do I have to tip the driver if I’m already paying a delivery fee? (If you read the fine print, you’ll see the delivery fee often doesn’t go entirely to the driver.)

Probably the most egregious example is the self-checkout machine that asks for a tip. You can find these in convenience stores and in airports, among other places . Why, you might be asking, should a machine get a tip? The companies say it’s for the employees that work behind the scenes , stocking the shelves and such.

But this illustrates the frustration for many consumers. The people who stock the shelves, the people who make the sandwiches, the people who pour the coffee—they get paid an hourly wage. Many customers are happy to leave a little extra once in a while , but they think it should be the company’s job to pay workers, and to set prices that allow them to do that.

There’s also a question about who gets the money. If you leave cash on a table, or if you leave cash in a tip jar, it’s very likely to be distributed fairly and 100 percent to the shift workers. But if you’re at a car wash and the company asks you to add 20 percent to your credit card payment…how sure are you that your tip is going to make it into the pockets of the workers there?

For their part , service workers say that their wages haven’t increased much lately, even though prices have increased. Bosses feel like they don’t have to increase employee wages quite as much if they prompt customers to add a tip.

Employees also say they suffer from the social awkwardness of the tip screen, too. It’s often not their choice to ask a customer for 25% or 30% in tips: they don’t want customers to think that they personally are asking for a tip that’s out of line.

The new frustration with tipping is starting to show up in the numbers. Tips for non-restaurant service workers are down 7 percent from a year ago.


I browsed Reddit for examples of places people were being asked to tip. Ready? Jeni’s ice cream: at one store, the minimum suggested tip was $5. Popcorn at the movies. An art supply store. Pest control. An oil change! Someone was asked to tip for an oil change. And then my favorite—a patient was prompted to leave a 20 percent tip on a $1,000 Botox treatment.

Botox is about the highest-margin health-related thing you can have done—the clinics can afford to pay their workers. So, I would say no thanks on tipping for Botox.

Anyway. If you’ve traveled to the U.S. and been confused about tipping—when, how much—you’re in good company because clearly a lot of Americans haven’t figured it out either.

¿Hablas español?

The transcript of this lesson is available with interactive translations into Spanish. In each lesson transcript, we select about one hundred difficult words, phrases , and expressions for translation.

How is this different than simply using a translation engine?

Translation engines are powerful tools for communicating in the modern world . However, they often miss the context and can either mislead you or leave you confused . Our human translators are here to make sure that you’re getting not only the correct definition, but also the full context .

How can I use the translations in my studies?

Most members use the translations as they are listening to the lesson and reading along . When you come across a word you don’t understand, you don’t have to press pause to discover the meaning . You can simply hover your mouse over the highlighted word . This lets you learn the definition of the word without having to press pause on the audio.

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Yes! Instead of hovering over a highlighted word, just tap on it .

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你说中国话?

The transcript of this lesson is available with interactive translations into your language. In each lesson transcript, we select about one hundred difficult words, phrases , and expressions for translation.

How is this different than simply using a translation engine?

Translation engines are powerful tools for communicating in the modern world . However, they often miss the context and can either mislead you or leave you confused . Our human translators are here to make sure that you’re getting not only the correct definition, but also the full context .

How can I use the translations in my studies?

Most members use the translations as they are listening to the lesson and reading along . When you come across a word you don’t understand, you don’t have to press pause to discover the meaning . You can simply hover your mouse over the highlighted word . This lets you learn the definition of the word without having to press pause on the audio.

Do the translations work on mobile?

Yes! Instead of hovering over a highlighted word, just tap on it .

How can I access the translations?

Translations are included in two memberships: Plain English Plus+ and Starter. Choose a plan and get started today!

Parlez-vous français?

The transcript of this lesson is available with interactive translations into your language. In each lesson transcript, we select about one hundred difficult words, phrases , and expressions for translation.

How is this different than simply using a translation engine?

Translation engines are powerful tools for communicating in the modern world . However, they often miss the context and can either mislead you or leave you confused . Our human translators are here to make sure that you’re getting not only the correct definition, but also the full context .

How can I use the translations in my studies?

Most members use the translations as they are listening to the lesson and reading along . When you come across a word you don’t understand, you don’t have to press pause to discover the meaning . You can simply hover your mouse over the highlighted word . This lets you learn the definition of the word without having to press pause on the audio.

Do the translations work on mobile?

Yes! Instead of hovering over a highlighted word, just tap on it .

Can I see a sample?

Yes, please visit PlainEnglish.com/sample to see a sample episode with the Spanish translations.

How can I access the translations?

Translations are included in two memberships: Plain English Plus+ and Starter. Choose a plan and get started today!

Você fala português?

The transcript of this lesson is available with interactive translations into your language. In each lesson transcript, we select about one hundred difficult words, phrases , and expressions for translation.

How is this different than simply using a translation engine?

Translation engines are powerful tools for communicating in the modern world . However, they often miss the context and can either mislead you or leave you confused . Our human translators are here to make sure that you’re getting not only the correct definition, but also the full context .

How can I use the translations in my studies?

Most members use the translations as they are listening to the lesson and reading along . When you come across a word you don’t understand, you don’t have to press pause to discover the meaning . You can simply hover your mouse over the highlighted word . This lets you learn the definition of the word without having to press pause on the audio.

Do the translations work on mobile?

Yes! Instead of hovering over a highlighted word, just tap on it .

Can I see a sample?

Yes, please visit PlainEnglish.com/sample to see a sample episode with the Spanish translations.

How can I access the translations?

Translations are included in two memberships: Plain English Plus+ and Starter. Choose a plan and get started today!

日本語は話せますか?

The transcript of this lesson is available with interactive translations into your language. In each lesson transcript, we select about one hundred difficult words, phrases , and expressions for translation.

How is this different than simply using a translation engine?

Translation engines are powerful tools for communicating in the modern world . However, they often miss the context and can either mislead you or leave you confused . Our human translators are here to make sure that you’re getting not only the correct definition, but also the full context .

How can I use the translations in my studies?

Most members use the translations as they are listening to the lesson and reading along . When you come across a word you don’t understand, you don’t have to press pause to discover the meaning . You can simply hover your mouse over the highlighted word . This lets you learn the definition of the word without having to press pause on the audio.

Do the translations work on mobile?

Yes! Instead of hovering over a highlighted word, just tap on it .

Can I see a sample?

Yes, please visit PlainEnglish.com/sample to see a sample episode with the Spanish translations.

How can I access the translations?

Translations are included in two memberships: Plain English Plus+ and Starter. Choose a plan and get started today!

Parli italiano?

The transcript of this lesson is available with interactive translations into your language. In each lesson transcript, we select about one hundred difficult words, phrases , and expressions for translation.

How is this different than simply using a translation engine?

Translation engines are powerful tools for communicating in the modern world . However, they often miss the context and can either mislead you or leave you confused . Our human translators are here to make sure that you’re getting not only the correct definition, but also the full context .

How can I use the translations in my studies?

Most members use the translations as they are listening to the lesson and reading along . When you come across a word you don’t understand, you don’t have to press pause to discover the meaning . You can simply hover your mouse over the highlighted word . This lets you learn the definition of the word without having to press pause on the audio.

Do the translations work on mobile?

Yes! Instead of hovering over a highlighted word, just tap on it .

Can I see a sample?

Yes, please visit PlainEnglish.com/sample to see a sample episode with the Spanish translations.

How can I access the translations?

Translations are included in two memberships: Plain English Plus+ and Starter. Choose a plan and get started today!

Sprechen Sie Deutsch?

The transcript of this lesson is available with interactive translations into your language. In each lesson transcript, we select about one hundred difficult words, phrases , and expressions for translation.

How is this different than simply using a translation engine?

Translation engines are powerful tools for communicating in the modern world . However, they often miss the context and can either mislead you or leave you confused . Our human translators are here to make sure that you’re getting not only the correct definition, but also the full context .

How can I use the translations in my studies?

Most members use the translations as they are listening to the lesson and reading along . When you come across a word you don’t understand, you don’t have to press pause to discover the meaning . You can simply hover your mouse over the highlighted word . This lets you learn the definition of the word without having to press pause on the audio.

Do the translations work on mobile?

Yes! Instead of hovering over a highlighted word, just tap on it .

Can I see a sample?

Yes, please visit PlainEnglish.com/sample to see a sample episode with the Spanish translations.

How can I access the translations?

Translations are included in two memberships: Plain English Plus+ and Starter. Choose a plan and get started today!

Sen Türkçe konuşmayı biliyor musun?

The transcripts of Plain English lessons are available with interactive translations into your language. In each lesson transcript, we select about one hundred difficult words, phrases , and expressions for translation. Turkish translations are available starting at Lesson 278.

How is this different than simply using a translation engine?

Translation engines are powerful tools for communicating in the modern world . However, they often miss the context and can either mislead you or leave you confused . Our human translators are here to make sure that you’re getting not only the correct definition, but also the full context .

How can I use the translations in my studies?

Most members use the translations as they are listening to the lesson and reading along . When you come across a word you don’t understand, you don’t have to press pause to discover the meaning . You can simply hover your mouse over the highlighted word . This lets you learn the definition of the word without having to press pause on the audio.

Do the translations work on mobile?

Yes! Instead of hovering over a highlighted word, just tap on it .

Can I see a sample?

Yes, please visit PlainEnglish.com/sample to see a sample episode with the Spanish translations.

How can I access the translations?

Translations are included in two memberships: Plain English Plus+ and Starter. Choose a plan and get started today!

Mówisz po polsku?

The transcript of Plain English lessons are available with interactive translations into your language. In each lesson transcript, we select about one hundred difficult words, phrases , and expressions for translation. Polish translations are available starting at Lesson 278.

How is this different than simply using a translation engine?

Translation engines are powerful tools for communicating in the modern world . However, they often miss the context and can either mislead you or leave you confused . Our human translators are here to make sure that you’re getting not only the correct definition, but also the full context .

How can I use the translations in my studies?

Most members use the translations as they are listening to the lesson and reading along . When you come across a word you don’t understand, you don’t have to press pause to discover the meaning . You can simply hover your mouse over the highlighted word . This lets you learn the definition of the word without having to press pause on the audio.

Do the translations work on mobile?

Yes! Instead of hovering over a highlighted word, just tap on it .

Can I see a sample?

Yes, please visit PlainEnglish.com/sample to see a sample episode with the Spanish translations.

How can I access the translations?

Translations are included in two memberships: Plain English Plus+ and Starter. Choose a plan and get started today!

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