By RYAN SAGER
An urban legend> about the origin of tips has it that the term comes from signs hung on boxes put out at British pubs in the 18th century to solicit gratuities: To Ensure Promptness. The tale is apocryphal, but it encapsulates our accepted understanding of what a tip is and why we do (or don't) give one.
With more than $40 billion spent on tips in the food-service industry alone every year and that's just in the U.S. we'd like to think we know why we're giving all this money away. As it is so often, however, our grasp on what motivates our behavior is tenuous.
Tipping did, in fact, migrate here from Europe after the Civil War. And it caused some controversy. Americans have long been suspicious of tipping as undemocratic. And yet in fields from food service to hair cutting to taxi driving, tipping has become an ingrained part of our culture.
So why do we do it? It turns out that our most common understanding that tipping is meant to reward and encourage good service doesn't hold much water.
If your tip is meant to improve your service the next time around, practically no one should tip while taking a cab or dining out of town. But studies show that we do tip in these situations and, in the case of eating out, at essentially the same rate as when we dine in a restaurant regularly.
What's more, our tips don't actually vary that much with the level of service we've received. While people claim in surveys that they tip almost exclusively based on the level of service, field studies in actual restaurants, such as those conducted by Michael Lynn of Cornell, find that better service is only partially correlated with bigger tips. A step up on a 1-to-5 rating scale of customer satisfaction translates into just a small increase (say, from 15 to 16 or 17 percent of the check).
What does make us tip better? How about breasts? A 2009 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that larger self-reported breast size among waitresses correlated with bigger tips. Similarly, a 2010 study in the International Journal of Hospitality Management found that waitresses' use of makeup significantly increased their tips. Female servers can also increase their tips by drawing a smiley face on the back of customers' checks (male servers, it turns out, can't achieve the same with this tactic).
In fairness to men: Women do tip male servers better than they tip female servers though waiters' attractiveness doesn't seem to enter into the equation.
Studies also have found that complimenting a diner's choice of dishes can boost tips (compliments also go a long way in boosting tips at hair salons, too). Also effective: a touch on the customer's arm, stooping down to table level, a flower in the hair, introducing oneself by name and giving diners extra candy at the end of a meal.
The key to tipping, then, has less to do with reward or punishment for quality of service. It's about rewarding or punishing those who engage our interest or empathy. A little more flirting goes a lot further than a little faster refill on your coffee.