How Have Apps Changed Tipping Culture?

When you last ordered at your local coffee shop, you were likely prompted to tip 15, 20 or 25 percent on a tablet. Or maybe there were two tip jars encouraging you to vote with your extra change.

With more options than ever before, it can be hard to know when to tip and when to skip.

“We’re a tip-happy culture, and so people feel weird if we’re not tipping,” said Lizzie Post, co-president of etiquette consultancy The Emily Post Institute.

Because of all the on-screen prompts, people are finding it harder not to tip, Post said.

But “just because you’re seeing it on a screen and it’s attached to your card … it doesn’t mean that you have to tip more all of a sudden,” she said. “It’s just another method for us to leave tips if you want to.”

Being mindful and making tipping decisions based on the situation is still the way to go.

Missing a human touch?

While tablets have left people questioning when they need to tip, the lack of math involved has made it a lot less painless.

Illustration of a pizza delivery man on a scooter and a hand holding a phone, ordering on an app. Rewire PBS Work TippingCredit: Adobe
Don’t forget about the human at the other end of your delivery when it comes time to leave a tip.

“I think it makes it easier when people don’t have to do the math,” said Mary Lathrop, 25, who has worked as a server in Missouri. “A lot of people don’t even know how to calculate what the appropriate percent of a bill is.”

But there can be downsides to the technology.

Parkes Ousley, 24, once delivered a $70 sushi dinner to a woman within 12 minutes. Expecting a big tip, Ousley was a little surprised to only get $2.

During his time with the company, Ousley said he received the minimum tip on the majority of his deliveries. That’s probably due to the lack of face-to-face interaction, he said.

“It’s easy to tip poorly when all you see is the phone the whole time,”  Ousley said.

‘Don’t slight people’

When you’re considering a tip, think about what the person is being paid. Coffee shops often pay workers minimum wage, Post said. But restaurants often pay their workers less (sometimes much less), based on the idea that they’ll be getting tips.

“You use your best judgement,” said Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert, author of “Modern Etiquette for a Better Life” and founder of The Protocol School of Texas. “But you don’t slight people who work for tips.”

Lathrop was working at a bistro when she was left a “card of encouragement” with a Bible verse on it rather than a tip.

“I wasn’t necessarily surprised by it,” she said. “It still felt pretty bad to devote almost two hours of my time and effort for $3.82 an hour.”

Minimum wage in Missouri is $7.85. Because Lathrop earns about four dollars less than that, tips are important to her.

Kristen Chavez, 24, was a server at Olive Garden in St. Joseph, Missouri, when a woman asked her to play “rock, paper, scissors” to get her tip for the night — $15 if Chavez won, $5 if she lost.

She lost.

“I felt like (the customer) didn’t understand how her tip affected my ability to pay rent and keep my lights on,” Chavez said. “I was shocked when I came back to a $5 tip after their dinner went so well.”

When tipping isn’t necessary

Tipping can depend on what and where you’re ordering. You probably don’t need to tip for something simple like black coffee, or even every time you visit your favorite coffee shop, Post said.

“Tipping at the counter is really up to you,” she said. “You may be a regular at this place and not tip every time you go but you might do larger tips than necessary every now and again.”

When ordering delivery, on the other hand, find out whether the delivery charge goes to the driver. If not, you should add a tip.

Don’t forget your hairdresser

Although a lot of people abide by the 15 to 25 percent rule when it comes to food, it can be easy to forget about other people who work for tips, like hairdressers, bellmen and Uber and Lyft drivers.

Clara Burrell, 26, of Kansas City, Missouri, has been a hairdresser for three years. She said it’s not uncommon for people to not know to tip her.

“I see clients confused and in turmoil when they tip,” she said. “They don’t know how much is appropriate. I think they want to but don’t always plan on it.”

Working in a service job “completely changed my understanding of tip culture,” Burrell said.

“Anyone providing a service deserves a tip.”

Plan for your tips

Make sure you factor tips into your budget, especially when traveling, Gottsman said.

Of course, not everyone has the budget to leave huge tips. If you receive fantastic service but you’re on a budget, there are other ways to show appreciation in addition to an average tip, she said.

For example, if there’s an option for ratings or comments, go out of your way to compliment the service or the business.

“Online feedback encourages further business,” Gottsman said.

Once a year, you can bake cookies or write a thank-you note for the people who provided you a service year-round, like your mail carrier or garbage truck driver.

“Your words can always help,” Post said.

Over the next year, Post expects people to get more comfortable with tablets prompting them to tip. And more comfortable saying no in certain situations.

“Just remember that it is up to you,” Post said. “You should feel confident about your budget — about what you know you can spend.”

Headshot of writer Heather Adams. Heather Adams

Heather Adams is a freelance reporter based in Los Angeles. She often reports on religion, foster care and disability rights. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for more on these topics, plus photos of her two dogs.