I had some guests in town visiting from Europe this past weekend. They wanted to treat me to a nice meal as a thank you for me hosting them so we went out to one of my favorite restaurants, which was very nice of them. When the check came I noticed they didn't leave a tip so I kindly explained what the protocol is here and that the waitstaff rely on tips for their living. Still they were uncomfortable with the idea and refused because of something or other.

I was very uneasy about this because not only will the staff be totally stiffed, but I don't know if I can show my face there again now. I thought about leaving the tip myself, but my guests would probably have been offended at me implying they were cheapskates.

Question: what's the best approach for dealing with this where the restaurant staff gets their tip and the friends don't get offended?

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    What country was this in, and where in Europe were your friends visiting from? There are many places in Europe where tipping is completely optional; they might not have been brought up to speed on your local rules. – Kozaky Aug 20 at 15:23
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    @Kozaky I don't think where they were from is relevant given that Duke leto said ' I kindly explained what the protocol is here'. – Spagirl Aug 20 at 15:24
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    @Spagirl Given where they are and from, they might not have realised that the tipping 'rule' is more than a mere suggestion. We're not told what their reasoning was for not doing it. – Kozaky Aug 20 at 15:29
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    @Kozaky In which case what needs clarification of is how thoroughly Duke Leto 'kindly explained what the protocol is' rather than what protocol they are used to. If, that is, you think there is any reason to doubt the Duke's view that they explained it adequately. – Spagirl Aug 20 at 15:32
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    @Kozaky the OP says the explanation included "the waitstaff rely on tips for their living". That seems sufficient. It's not clear why the visitors then refused to tip. – DaveG Aug 20 at 21:38
up vote 81 down vote accepted

To be clear, while the amount of the tip you leave is somewhat flexible, in countries like the United States where it is customary, you should leave a tip unless the service is extraordinarily bad (but that's been so rare that when it happens I complain to the manager and get the entire meal comped.)

Not leaving a tip actually punishes the waiters and staff, since many restaurants typically underpay the hourly for waiters and instead expect them to make it up from tips. Plus, many restaurants share tips between waiters, as well as with the busboys and sometimes even the kitchen staff, in order to encourage cooperation.

We can argue that this is an unreasonable or an unfair system, but I think that's off-topic. The point is that tipping is expected behavior and it's fairly rude not to add the tip to the cost of the meal. I'm sure there are many customs in their own country that would be similarly impolite if ignored.

That being said: If someone has offered to pay for your meal, and does not leave a tip, it's on them, not on you. You should try to explain the custom to them, but you should neither force them to leave a tip or risk embarrassing them by ostentatiously leaving a tip where they can see you doing it.

If you want, you can make some excuse to separate yourself from the group on your way out, go to your waiter (or the manager), and surreptitiously give them some cash, with a brief explanation:

I'm sorry, my friends are from Europe where they don't tip, so I hope this will cover it? Thank you so much for a wonderful meal!

If you can pull this off, you will have gracefully smoothed over any ruffled feathers from the restaurant staff while simultaneously not ruffling any of your friends' feathers, the best of both worlds.

If not, then let it go for now -- but make sure to remember the name of your waiter.1 The next time you visit, you should be able to request that person, and leave them an extra tip to make up for the previous visit.


1. I can't speak for other places, but in every restaurant in California that I know we have the same primary waiter the entire meal. The exception is when one waiter is done for the day, in which case they come over to explain and introduce the new waiter. The other people who come around to clear dishes or refill drinks are other staff like busboys, etc, which is why I mention that many restaurants share tips, to motivate everyone to provide the best service. This is for restaurants that have formal waitstaff, of course.

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    "Not leaving a tip actually punishes the waiters and staff, since many restaurants typically underpay the hourly for waiters and instead expect them to make it up from tips." If by "underpay", you mean paid less than minimum wage, that may not be true everywhere in the United States. In California, tipped workers have a minimum wage equal to their non-tipped counterparts ($10.50-$11.00). In Texas, they can be paid as little as $2.13 (~30% of the state's non-tipped minimum wage) and expected to make up the rest in tips. – Thunderforge Aug 24 at 19:16
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    @Thunderforge Yep, and they also must be paid at least federal minimum wage. If base + tips are less than federal minimum wage then their employer must still pay them the remaining difference. That said, there are a great many establishments that illegally ignore that and also illegally punish staff in other ways when they don't make enough in tips. Edit: That is for the US, I'm not 100% clear where the OP is located. – ttbek Aug 26 at 16:28

I've been through similar situations (friends not tipping because they didn't have money or because service was 'too slow'). In the cases where I knew I'd be a returning customer and didn't want to make a bad impression, I would usually try to sneakily add extra tip in my own bill.

However, in the case where your guests are covering the whole bill and you're unable to "sneak" a tip in unnoticed, I suggest explaining the cultural expectation (as you did), and when they say they're still uncomfortable with it, calmly saying:

"That's alright if you aren't comfortable with it, I really appreciate that you bought my whole meal, so I'll go ahead and pick up the tip."

Saying this nonchalantly is a good way of keeping the situation de-escalated and emphasizing that you're thankful for their gratuity in buying you a meal. If they argue about you spending money, just remind them that you live here and want to be able to return without a bad reputation:

"I don't mind if you don't want to tip, but it makes me uncomfortable not leaving one since I come here often and the staff expect it. Since you paid for my whole meal, I'm more than happy to pick up the tip since I'm the one wanting to leave it."

By doing so, you're reminding them that even if it doesn't seem normal to them, it's an expectation and a norm for you to that you still need to maintain since you live here.

When I've been in these situations, usually with older people and less so with foreigners, I don't say anything to those in my party. Instead I look for a careful way to leave some cash at the table, or if I'm desperate, perform a discrete hand off directly with the server.

It's never failed me to "accidentally" leave something at the table, then once everyone has exited the restaurant, "notice" it's missing and run back in real quick to collect it, using that opportunity to drop some cash on the table. It also works to wait until everyone has left and then slip back in real quick to "use the restroom". The only times I've approached the server directly is when I'm with people who see me regularly enough they might otherwise notice a pattern, forcing me to use different tactics.

The way I see it, if someone I'm dining with is buying my dinner for me, it's reasonable for me to leave the tip anyway. Or if I'm with someone(s) who for whatever reasons refuses to tip, or tips poorly, then I justify this as damage control for my own reputation.

With respect to the "cultural disconnect", when it's generational, the table is a risky place for that conversation. I've never known that conversation to result in one party or the other eventually conceding to a change of thinking.

You should leave the tip yourself while briefly explaining the custom. It's "optional" in that it isn't formally enforced (as the overall bill would be if you tried to dine-and-dash), but it's not really a "bonus" for the people working there. At worst, you can double back and leave some cash on the table in the hopes that your friends won't notice.

The tip is not much relative to the cost of the whole meal and so it's still a nice thing for your friends to do for you even if they decline to cover the tip themselves.

The convention for restaurants in the U.S. (where I presume you are based) is to tip, and the restaurant business in virtually all U.S. restaurants is based around that (for example, waitstaff pay is often set under the assumption of tips being provided around a certain level). Even if the service is poor the expected result is generally a small tip, not none at all.

I can understand confusion for someone who comes from a place where tipping isn't done. But while it was nice of them to want to treat you to a meal, a tip is part of the cost of that meal. Not tipping is loosely equivalent to leaving payment for only ~85% of your bill in any other context, and if you tried that while visiting them I doubt they would just shrug it off. Particularly at a local restaurant they would want to go to again!

I've faced a similar situation, in which my dad left a small tip despite the service being great. While this situation is a little different because there's no cultural difference (although maybe it's a generational difference), my course of action could still apply. In this situation, I expressed to my dad that I was unhappy with the small tip, reminding him that the service was perfect and that servers often rely on tips. When he refused to leave a larger tip, I simply added to the tip myself. While he was a little upset, I achieved my goal of leaving a larger tip, and I expressed to him my reasons for doing so, even if he didn't agree.

In your case, I would highly recommend leaving a larger tip, even if your friends don't understand why. You explained to them the custom of tipping, and you don't really owe them anything else. After all, you mentioned that this restaurant was one of your favorites and now you don't feel like you can return.

Imagine you fly to France and go to an ordinary restaurant with the same friends. At the end of the meal, your friends insist that you go help wash the dishes in the kitchen because "that's the tradition" in their country. When inquiring whether or not this is a legal responsibility of yours they answer no, but insist that you must follow the "local customs". Likewise they fail to explain why the restaurant can't just raise their prices to hire a dishwasher instead of annoying their customers.

That's exactly how your friends feel. They've eaten their meal, paid their check, and legally speaking they are free to get up and leave the restaurant. Why should they pay extra? There is no logical explanation you could possibly offer as its an illogical practice in the first place.

Your next actions depend on how good of a friend you are to your company:

  • If these are mere acquaintances and you're not sure how they would react, come back to the restaurant under the guise of forgetting something and slip the tip into the check folder. If the waiter has already picked it up, give it to them in person.

  • If these are your friends or family, give them the dishwashing analogy above (or an equivalent one) and laugh it off as an absurd American tradition. After acknowledging it as such, openly leave a tip and insist that its a thank you for them paying for your meal.

The people saying that "it is not your responsibility" and "do not embarrass your guests" are approaching this situation too simplistically:

  1. True, nobody is legally obligated to tip. But, given that tips are typically a component of the expected income for the person waiting on you (if not also additional staff) and not a "bonus", there is a moral obligation and it should be paid. It doesn't really matter who pays the tip, just like it doesn't matter who pays the bill. So if your guests are not willing or able to, then yeah, it kinda does fall to you as one of the people who received the service (and took up that servers time when they could have otherwise been waiting on another table that would have paid the tip).

    The tip is part of the cost of the meal. If someone offers to pay for the meal but doesn't cover the tip, then they aren't truly covering the full cost of the meal. But the cost is still there. And the time was spent and work was done, hence it should be paid for.

    There is a good reason why the tip is often included, and often at a slightly higher rate (typically 18% instead of 15%) for parties over a certain number of people: because it's part of the actual cost, and larger parties demand more resources, and hence a much higher risk if that party fails to tip since the staff was working for the large party instead of spending that time on others, and there is no way to recover that loss since the time has already been spent.

  2. Ideally you should not embarrass your guests. BUT, in this case, it is your guests who are embarrassing you by not following local customs. If they don't feel comfortable paying, or don't have the means to pay, then fine. If they get embarrassed when you pay (you did explain how this system works), then they will have to get over that. And lucky for them it is much easier to get over being (slightly) embarrassed than it is to get over not being able to pay your rent because your income depends on tips and rude (or uninformed, in some cases) people aren't tipping what they should, even though the work was done. But, the guests actually don't have a right to be embarrassed in this particular situation. It doesn't matter where they come from and what the customs are there. As the saying goes: "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."

    This, even if making for a slightly uncomfortable situation, is better than trying to do it discretely because that doesn't help set the example that this is indeed how things work (in the US, at least). Trying to hide that you are leaving a tip enables them to continue not tipping at other restaurants. And, if they later found out, then that would take away from the point that this is expected and not just an occasional polite thing to do.

I was very uneasy about this because not only will the staff be totally stiffed, but I don't know if I can show my face there again now.

This is also the wrong approach. Most of the time it is never too late to correct a mistake (or to apologize, etc). There is nothing stopping you from going back to that restaurant and speaking to the manager on duty about the situation. You can probably pay the tip, and if you tell the manager what night you were there, it might even get to the correct people (those that worked that night, especially the person who waited on your table).


To look at this another way:

Let's say that you are walking home from the restaurant with your guests and there were some left-overs. At some point, they start throwing trash on the ground. You politely explain to them that they should not be littering. They reply that doing so is not considered bad where they are from, and they continue walking. Do you:

  1. leave the trash there, feeling bad that there is trash on the ground, but never doing anything about it?
  2. leave the trash there, but come back later to clean it up?
  3. pick it up, right then and there, and say to them, "If you want to throw trash on the ground back home, then fine. But here, that's not acceptable. So I will throw this stuff out when we get back to my place."

To address certain questions / statements left in comments on this answer that have since disappeared:

  1. The tip is entirely optional

    Saying that the tip is optional is correct only in a technical sense, at least here in the U.S., because you are not forced to leave it (although that is not always true: as I mentioned above, sometimes gratuity is included in the bill). But in practice, a tip of 15% of the pre-tax total is an assumed part of the transaction, especially in places where there is a two-tiered minimum wage and wait staff are paid less than the standard minimum wage ( Gradually eliminating the two-tiered wage system for tipped workers in New York will improve working conditions and wages for tipped workers across the state ). While I agree that the two-tier system is unfair and should be eliminated, the fact that it exists indicates the degree to which tips are an assumed part of the cost (when being waited on).

  2. Why do you support employers who don't pay their employees enough?

    This is a flawed view of the situation. I am supporting the employees. Me not going to a restaurant would most likely suggest to the owner that I don't like what they have to offer instead of it being a protest about the working conditions.

  3. Why don't you protest by not leaving a tip?

    Because not leaving a tip has no chance of being an effective protest. All it does is force someone to spend some amount of time performing work that they won't get paid for. People who don't leave a tip are not "standing up for what is right" (regardless of how they have romanticized such actions in their heads); they are just jerks who didn't bother to ask the wait staff how the system works, and what effect that action would have, before proceeding to underpay someone who is most likely already not highly paid.

    Not convinced? Just ask a few people (who wait on tables) in a few different places how thankful they are that you refuse to tip. Explain how you support their cause, and are fighting the system, and see if they get all teary-eyed while shaking your hand and/or giving you a big hug for being so understanding, enlightened, and brave.

    For reference, please read the following two answers (at least the first one) to the question, "What happens if you don’t tip your waiter in the U.S.?", on Quora:

I appreciate your discomfort about not leaving a tip for fear of damage to your reputation from the staff at your local venue, but by forcing the issue you risk damage to your reputation from the people paying for your meal. You have explained the local cultural norms after which they made a decision, which you should respect. Coming from a European background they may well have been confused about why you would choose to go to a restaurant where the staff were not being paid by their employers, something alien to most Europeans.

Unless patrons are explicitly told that they are required to contribute to the wages of staff, then it's absolutely not unreasonable to not tip unless the service has been exceptional.

If you want your friends to supplement the wages of staff, then tell them that, don't ask them to tip, because by definition that isn't what you're doing, so it's understandable they'd be confused and reluctant to tip.

"In America, we are culturally obliged to supplement around 15-20% of the wages for waiters and waitresses as restaurant patrons, in the same way you are expected to contribute a donation to free Museums".

By framing it how it is, you no longer need to ask them to leave a mandatory tip, which quite understandably any outsider would find dumb, as explaining that "tipping is protocol" would not have the same effect as saying "supplementing wages is protocol".

You are also allowing them to leave an actual tip if they wish to (in addition to the wage supplement).

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