Angry about having to leave a gratuity? You might have tip rage

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By Christopher Elliott

If you’re upset about being asked for a gratuity at every turn — at convenience stores, supermarkets and even on websites — then you might have a case of tip rage.

“There are now more situations than there used to be in which we’re expected to tip,” says Gail Sahar, a psychology professor at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. “That feels unfair to many people. They’re frustrated — and angry.”

A few weeks ago, I noted that many Americans had simply stopped tipping. But that’s left many people seething for two reasons: First, the solicitations for gratuities have only become louder, leading to more friction. And second, service staff are furious because their customers are not tipping enough. 

What is tip rage?

Tip rage is the anger people feel when they’re pressured into leaving a gratuity. In recent months, coffee shops, restaurants, and hotels in the United States have become pushier about soliciting these extras. For example, some payment terminals are demanding a 30 percent tip before you get a takeout meal. Other times, service workers leave you with the impression that if you don’t tip enough, you’re stealing their wages.

“Getting hit up for tips all the time and in unreasonable circumstances is frustrating,” says Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University. “And the frustration leads to aggression.”

To be clear, there are no reports yet of people ripping a payment terminal out of the wall and throwing it at a server, or of someone tearing a credit card receipt to shreds and tossing it on the hotel room floor like confetti. But that hasn’t stopped people from fantasizing about it. 

Why consumers are mad about tipping

What’s behind the fury? 

For Missy Walker, the breaking point came when the owners of her favorite coffee shop blocked the “no tip” option on its payment terminal. That meant she had to leave a gratuity before they delivered her coffee.

“I’m outraged,” says Walker, a retired teacher from Winter Garden, Fla. “And as for

the business — shame on them!”

Ed Horenburger, a retired printer from Philadelphia, says he was “disgusted” when his favorite restaurant decided to switch its suggested tip to include a gratuity on the total amount, including taxes. He doesn’t think that’s fair, a sentiment shared by many readers.

“I’ve drifted more to making coffee at home to reduce the need for tipping,” he says.

Stephen Zimmerman, the president of an accounting firm in New York, says he was stunned when he saw a tipping option after booking an airfare online — an action that required no help from a person. The site offered the option of a $1, $6 or $9 gratuity. 

He declined.  

“It seemed like we reached the end of the world with that,” he says.

It’s easy to see why people are upset. Being forced to leave a gratuity before a service is rendered, playing sneaky numbers games and asking for a gratuity for no service is enough to upset even the most generous tipper. 

But privately, readers also told me that they were most angry about the guilt. It’s the feeling that they are responsible for the wages of their service staff, and that by failing to tip, they were depriving service workers of their salary.

Service workers have a different view, though.

Why do service workers have tip rage?

Service employees, who flooded my inbox with angry messages after my last column on tipping, are outraged that this is even a topic of discussion. 

Most of them feel that people should leave 20 percent tips as a baseline in restaurants, and that if you can’t, you shouldn’t bother eating out. The sentiment carried over to other service professions, including cruises, hotels and tours: Don’t even think about traveling without being prepared to add 20 percent at a minimum to the price.

I should preface this by saying my last story on gratuities talked about the people who had stopped tipping. 

Almost all of the responses I received from service workers were so filled with vitriol that I can’t quote them in a family publication. They used gratuitous profanity, told me I wasn’t welcome in their restaurants, and one even promised that if I ever ordered in her establishment, she would spit in my food.

Between the epithets and threats, there was one common theme. Many U.S. states allow restaurants to pay less than minimum wage for tipped positions, so the servers rely on your gratuities to earn a living.

Bottom line, according to employees: Service workers are entitled to your gratuity, and not just because it’s part of their basic income. It’s because they have to put up with you.

“I dare ask anyone who’s worked in the service-based industry to argue that our front-line service workers don’t deserve a tip,” says Kelly Anderson, a corporate chef from La Crescenta, Calif. “Why? Because most consumers are difficult, entitled, and have misguided rage.”

OK, so we’re angry at service workers. They’re angry at us. But who’s right?

What should you do about tip rage?

Fixing this isn’t going to be easy, according to experts.

“The compensation system in the United States is totally broken,” says etiquette expert Nick Leighton. “The ultimate solution will have to come from Congress for this problem to truly be addressed.”

Until that happens, he says, customers shouldn’t be angry at service workers for a system they didn’t create — and vice versa.

But what should you do about the tip rage you feel every time you go to pay for something?

Honesty is one of the hallmarks of our system. Most consumers feel that the price you’re quoted on the menu should be the price you pay, period. If you’re being pressured to pay 20 percent above the menu price, then the company is being dishonest — and you should take your business elsewhere.

Most readers resent being held responsible for the salary of their restaurant server, tour guide or cabin steward. They say the cost of their meal, cruise or tour should cover everything, including worker salaries, as it does in most of the rest of the world. But if it doesn’t, then it’s a private matter between the employer and employee, and none of their business.

Americans are some of the most generous people on earth, and many of them decide to tip their servers and guides. Having traveled all over the world, I believe our generosity is one of our best qualities. But the tipped-out travelers who responded to my last story make a valid point. We shouldn’t leave a gratuity because we have to. We should do it because we have received good service and we want to.

How to avoid tip rage

There are two ways to prevent frustration at the incessant solicitations for tips. First, you can pay with cash to avoid using the electronic terminals. (And by the way, if you ever run across a payment terminal that forces you to tip — and no way to opt out, just cancel the transaction and leave.)

Some credit cards can help you maintain your calm, too. Barbara Dukart, a travel advisor from Wilmington, Del., swears by her Capital One card. Its mobile app sends her notifications from time to time, asking if she meant to leave a tip on an item. “I love it,” she says.

Matt Knise, a senior vice president at Capital One, told me the company has invested in a personal alert system “to identify unusual charges such as bill increases, double charges — or unintended overtipping.” 

What if you discover that you’ve accidentally overtipped a business? Knise says it’s best to contact the merchant directly to get your gratuity back. But if that doesn’t work, you can always file a dispute on your credit card, and Capital One will try to get you a refund. 

That’s right, folks. Don’t get mad about tipping. Get even.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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