In the Nordic countries, buying food or drink gives me the vapors. Once I bought a cup of coffee from a bar in Copenhagen and tried to tip the server. She stared blankly at the extra kroner on the counter, and my Danish friend, who has also travelled in the US stared too. “Is that supposed to be a tip?” he whispered to me while her back was turned. “We don’t do that here.”  And then he handed my coin back to me.

At restaurants, not tipping causes me an almost physical pain.

As weird as it is for me not to tip, it’s apparently way weirder for people from the Nordic countries to come to the US and be expected to do so. After reading my last piece, on a few things I learned from travelling in the Nordic countries, a few Finnish acquaintances asked for a guide to tipping.

So here it is. Bear in mind that this is just how I do it—I’m sure the gods of etiquette are probably looking down on me from somewhere with disapproving frowns.

Why tip?

There’s a much lower minimum wage for food workers than there is for everyone else. It’s like $2 or $3 per hour because the presumption is that food workers will be getting tipped.

If you don’t tip wait staff, it can be a serious problem for them. It means they make less in an hour than they would begging on the street.

Part of the idea behind making tipping such a major part of a person’s income is the idea that it incentivizes staff to provide good service.

Is it a messed up system? Sure. But let’s remember that tipping has a long and storied history and I believe it was the waiters’ unions back like eighty years ago that agitated for a lower minimum wage in food service professions so they could keep their tips. I researched it once for a story I wrote on tipping.

When to tip?

Here’s a list of the most common people you tip:

  • Wait Staff (15-20% of the bill, before tax is added)
  • Taxi drivers (10-15% of the ride)
  • Bellhops ($2-$3 per bag)
  • Cleaning staff at a hotel ($5 per day)
  • Hair Stylists (10-15% unless they are the owner of the salon)
  • The person who washes your hair at a salon($5)
  • Manicurists (5-10%, minimum $5)
  • Car wash attendants ($5 or so)
  • Parking attendants (round up your bill by a dollar or two. Though sometimes I don’t tip.)
  • Bathroom attendants (a dollar or two, if you have it)

Tipping restaurant workers and hair stylist is mandatory. On a fare over $5, so is tipping taxi drivers. If I’m really hurting for money, I tip the others less regularly, though I know I’m being a bit rude–if I could afford to tip more, I would.

What sorts of eating venues do you tip in?

I never realized, but you don’t tip at all restaurants. Basically, if you’re getting table service, with a server who comes to your table, or if you’re at a bar, you tip.

You don’t have to tip at places like coffee shops or delis, where you order your food at the counter and then take it somewhere. You can tip at some of these places—look for the telltale tip jar in front of the register, but it’s not expected or required. I usually tip at my local coffee joints, for example, because I buy a cup of coffee and sit there a long time, and I’m around enough that the servers recognize me. Usually, I tip a dollar, but sometimes I’ll just tip the change that comes back from my coffee.

Some corporate eateries forbid their employees from taking tips. So if you don’t see a tip jar, don’t try to tip.

Can I tip in coins? What’s the minimum tip?

I mean, it’s legal tender so you can, but really, you shouldn’t. Tip in whole dollar amounts when possible, to prevent folks from having to make change—a cabbie is going to round up your fare to the nearest dollar anyway, so add an extra dollar on a small fare and call it even.

There are some exceptions when you can include coins in your tip—if you get change at the local coffee shop for a small tip on your small purchase and put it in the jar (which is nice, but not required anyway), or if you get your change back from your server and want to leave the change in addition to whatever dollars you are leaving.

If you must tip in cash and you discover you’re out of money except you have three dollars in quarters in your pocket, leave the three dollars in quarters.

In general, unless you’re at a coffee shop or something (and even then) I think it’s chintzy to leave less than a dollar.

How to calculate the tip at a restaurant

The easiest way to calculate a restaurant tip is to move the decimal point over and multiply by two. If my bill is $18.36, in my head, I’d say, “OK. So the tip should be $1.80 times two, which is about $3.60.” And then I’d round up to the nearest dollar and call it $22. I think that would be a decent tip on that bill. On the other hand, 15 percent is the minimum and 18 percent is standard, so it’d be over-tipping a little to make the math easy for me.

The minimum tip on $18.36 would be $1.80 plus half that–$0.90, to make $2.70, and my final bill about $21.

Since in many states the tax amounts to about 10% of the bill, I know folks who simply double the tax to get an appropriate tip amount. But remember: when you tip, you tip on the smaller total of food and drink, not on the total amount of the bill, which includes tax. I mean, you can tip on the total bill, but strictly speaking, that’s just making the tip bigger.

Cash v credit

If you put your bill on credit card, you can tip an exact amount without having to worry about the coin thing. But it is nicer for your servers, if you can, to pay the bill on credit but then tip in cash.

I’m a little vague on exactly why this is, but I think it has to do with a) giving the IRS a paper trail so servers have to report 100% of their income and b) problems in some venues with folks who own the joint skimming tips or maybe the tip gets lessened due to credit card fees or something?

Tipping Out

At the end of the night, your server also “tips out” to other people on the staff. This means your server gives some of their tips to the busboys and the bartender who made your cocktails. So if you stiff your server, you might be forcing them to stiff other staff members.

Non-Restaurant Tipping

Restaurant tipping is unique in that you are mostly writing a number on a bill, or leaving change on a table for tip and bill, etc. Most other sorts of tipping involve handing money directly over to the person giving you a service.

It’s sort of messed up that many of us feel awkward about this, right? I mean, the bellhop wants the money and maybe needs it, and a little social awkwardness is going to prevent us from giving it to him or her? Are your feelings of personal awkwardness seriously more important than helping the person who washes your hair make his or her rent?

You don’t have to be coy or hide the cash in the middle of your palm or anything. I’m terrible at tipping bellhops, but when I remember to, I try to stash some dollars in my bra ahead of time so I can discreetly grab the bills to give away. Just hand them over and say, “thank you,” while looking them in the eye and nodding. Chances are good that the bellhop might be leaving slowly to give you a chance to do this, though they wouldn’t want to be perceived as waiting around for a tip either, and often do not expect one.

You tip hotel maids by leaving some money in the room on your pillow or side table with a note saying “thank you.” It’s best to tip every day, rather than when you leave, as different folks may service your room on different days. I’m terrible at remembering this, but it is the sort of think you’re supposed to do.

You tip the people who wash your hair at a hair salon afterward, by walking back there and doing it in person. You tip your stylist by handing that person cash after you’ve paid at the desk. Sometimes there are tipping envelopes at the desk you can use instead. You don’t tip the owner of a salon, or you tip them less because they take a profit from the wages of everyone who works at a salon, so they are considered to be “covered.”

With taxi drivers, you calculate the tip before you hand them the cash, and then in change you just ask for what you want back. So if my cab fare is $5, I’ll decide to tip the minimum of $1 and then when I hand the cabbie a ten, I’ll say, “just give me four back.”

What does tipping a lot/not a lot mean?

Tipping a lot can mean different things. It can mean a person is being showy with their wealth by giving extravagant tips. A tip of $20 on a small cocktail bill is a statement. If done visibly, it says, “I’m rich and I want you to know it.” If done discreetly it means, “I am lucky enough to have money and I want to help you out.” As in the anonymous woman who left a $15,000 tip for three waitresses she overheard talking about their student loans.

Similarly, tipping a lot at a restaurant sometimes means that your friends have worked as wait staff in the past and know how much a tip can mean. I have friends who tip 25% because they remember what it was like. Waiting tables is a tough, tough job.

You can also tip more than 20% if the service was phenomenal, or if you felt people went above and beyond the call of duty to help you.

Tipping less than 15% is a slap in the face. If the service was really surly and exceptionally slow, maybe you tip 10%. Leaving exact change means you are either a mean high school student, or your server set your hair on fire and peed into the food.

If the food is terrible and you leave a small tip, you’re punishing the server, not the kitchen.

If you’re displeased, you can apparently leave two pennies on top of a stack of bills to register your displeasure.

Yet More Tipping

Updates. Some special conditions have risen up on a few social media fora. Here’s the skinny.

Service Charges

When you’re 6 or more people at a restaurant, sometimes the venue will add in a mandatory service charge or gratuity. This arrives as a line item on your bill, and it’s typically 15-18% of the total. Basically, they just do the math for you in case your party gets too rowdy or the bill is split 9 ways and you might otherwise come up short. If you are unhappy with the service and think the servers deserve less, you can, of course, talk to a manager and get that charge reduced.

If there is a gratuity included in the bill, then you do not have to tip on top of that. The tip is included.

Free Food and Drinks

If servers bring you free food or drink, like if you’re at some reception with an open bar that you stand in line for, it’s customary to tip the servers $1-2 per drink. Or if you’re at a restaurant, to tip on what the price of the meal would have been if you’d paid full price. I.e. if your friend in the kitchen sends you an extra lobster, you tip the server 15-20% of whatever you think that lobster would have cost.

 Got more questions about tipping? Post them in the comments and I’ll do my best. 

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A Guide to Tipping for Nordicans in the US
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10 thoughts on “A Guide to Tipping for Nordicans in the US

  • May 8, 2014 at 3:30 pm

    Bartenders. You forgot to tip your bartender when at a bar or club. Also, parties or events with a cash bar will usually have a tip jar for your bartender.

    Also, if you really enjoyed your Amerilarp, it is nice to tip the GM a few bucks. It isn’t normal, but maybe it’s a tradition worth starting. 🙂

  • May 8, 2014 at 3:37 pm

    Heh. I thought I covered that up top in the, “or if you’re at a bar.” But you’re right, it should be more prominent. Always tip at bars. Always.

  • May 8, 2014 at 4:29 pm

    Mm, I was really surprised the first time being expected to tip in a bar, when I was in the US. Here in the UK we tip in restaurants and cafes, but never in pubs, for some reason. You might invite the bar person to have a drink on your bill, if you’re enough of a regular there for that not to seem over-familiar: but not actually give them cash.

    We have the same minimum wage across all industries: currently £6.31, about 11 US dollars. (Less for younger people.)

  • May 8, 2014 at 4:38 pm

    Oh my goodness tip hotel maids, PARTICULARLY if you are packed in like animals at some convention. They work hard as hell and have to deal with your stank. For me this is restaurant-level non-optional.

  • May 8, 2014 at 5:30 pm

    Word up. Always tip the maids. Got it.

    A friend and finance journalist on G+ also informs me that my rules about not tipping salon owners is now considered old fashioned and out dated. So there’s that, too.

  • May 8, 2014 at 6:05 pm

    Actually, tip the maids in the Nordic countries too 🙂 They really get shafted on their paycheck. Nice read. I think I haven’t f”’ed up too badly on tipping in the US

  • May 8, 2014 at 7:00 pm

    I once worked in the coat check of a dinghy bar in Denmark. People tipped me all the time, at least a few people each night (even though it wasn’t expected – maybe cause they were drunk?)
    This one guy tipped me 1000 Danish kroner. Unfortunately, that wasn’t a regular occurrence!

  • May 11, 2014 at 1:25 pm

    One thing I would note about tipping servers when you get bad food… you shouldn’t punish the server for the kitchen’s bad behavior, but you should judge them based on what they do when you complain about the bad food. A good server does their best to fix the problem (or at least get you a different plate of bad food). A crappy server treats you as if it’s your problem and is openly hostile to your criticism.

    There are restaurants I can’t ever go to again because of really horrible service experiences or dreadful management reactions that wouldn’t allow the servers to “make things right” when something went wrong.

  • May 14, 2014 at 3:35 am

    Tipping hotel maids: I leave about $5 per day on the pillow when I check out of a hotel for the maid.

    Some restaurants, notably in San Diego, are instituting a policy of NOT tipping the wait staff, and of course, it has become a huge political fight:

    Also, tip your masseuse (15-20%) and strippers (I wouldn’t know how much to tip). 😉

    I, too, think larp GMs should be tipped. I actually did get a tip once by a friend on a “Be Kind to Your GM Day”. Just once, tho.

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