Tipping a service person is illogical if you stop to think about it. Why would rational people voluntarily pay more for a service than they must?
Tipping is not as rampant in other countries as it is in the United States. And besides, who carries cash anymore?
Logical or not, there are myriad reasons for tipping in American society. Rewarding good-quality service, helping service workers and gaining social approval are a few of the reasons explored by academics, such as Michael Lynn, a Cornell University professor who has written more than 50 research publications on the topic.
Estimates peg the tipping economy at some $40 billion per year in the food industry alone.
Bottom line, we’re stuck with a gratuity custom that is sometimes inconsistent, often baffling and inevitably awkward.
“No one wants to feel as if they are forced to tip. The angst comes when people feel it’s an obligation,” said Diane Gottsman, etiquette expert and owner of The Protocol School of Texas.
Think of holiday tips as gifts, Gottsman said. “You’re not going to be tipping people by handing out money randomly,” she said. “You’re going to be offering a gift, a tip, to someone who you’ve built a relationship with throughout the year.”
Another indicator that a holiday tip might be appropriate? A service person who often goes “above and beyond” for you, Gottsman said.
For some people, a holiday gift is appropriate for a hair stylist, who a consumer might see monthly. A typical tip is the cost of one service. “That’s a very soft guideline for those who need a starting place,” Gottsman said. “You give what you’re comfortable giving, and what you think you can afford.”
If you can’t afford that, give a thoughtful gift that is less expensive, a scarf for a stylist who collects them, for example, Gottsman said.
All tips should be accompanied by cards or notes, at least an envelope, so it feels festive, Gottsman said. “You never just want to hand someone a $20 bill,” she said.
In brainstorming a list of recipients, don’t forget seasonal service people who aren’t present in December, such as regular pool cleaners and landscapers.
If you’re confused about a tipping situation, default to one session of service for people who work at your home, otherwise use the rates for restaurant servers, 15 to 20 percent, as a ballpark amount.
Below is a sample of possible holiday tips, with help from Gottsman; the Emily Post Institute; Tipping.org; Jacqueline Whitmore, etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach; and the American Hotel & Lodging Association.
Tip amounts can vary, and tips tend to be larger in big cities. But protocol experts say that withholding holiday tips should not be used as punishment for poor service. That’s a different issue that requires speaking to a manager or changing services.
• Housekeeper or cleaner. These are the most-tipped service people during the holidays, Consumer Reports found in a survey. It found the median was $50, although protocol is the cost of one cleaning.
• Package deliverer. Tough one. Federal regulations say U.S. postal workers can “accept a gift worth $20 or less from a customer per occasion, such as Christmas. However, cash and cash equivalents, such as checks or gift cards that can be exchanged for cash, must never be accepted in any amount.” FedEx workers can accept tips up to $75. UPS management prefers drivers receive gifts rather than cash tips but has no strict rules.
• Trash collector. Often on lists of people to tip during the holidays but ones we rarely see, let alone interact with. Protocol says a holiday tip of $10 per person is reasonable, although some municipal trash collectors might be forbidden from accepting money.
It’s also a logistical conundrum. How do you deliver the tip, tape an envelope to your trash can? One alternative is to drop off the tip at the business office, Gottsman said. And the garbage-truck driver who is just operating a mechanical arm on the truck and not even handling your trash cans? A tip becomes less important, Gottsman said.
• Grade school teacher. Highlights the difference between a tip and a holiday gift, which is more appropriate for salaried professionals. No cash for teachers, but gift cards work well, especially to office supply stores. And if a room parent has already collected money for a class gift, don’t feel obligated to give an individual holiday gift too.
• Doctor, lawyer, accountant. No tip. If you feel close with them or want to thank them for special work that year, baked goods would be appreciated, Gottsman said.
• Newspaper delivery. Daily: $15-$30. Sunday only: $5-$15.
• Day care provider. $20-$70 each, plus a small gift from your child.
• Home health workers. First, check with the agency about its policies for gifts and tipping. A thoughtful gift might be best.
Ultimately, it’s the thought that counts.
“We need to quit looking at our neighbors to see what they’re doing and do what is meaningful to us,” Gottsman said. “Nothing with gratuities equals mandatory. It’s thoughtfulness and good will.”