One of the reasons I thought of this as something worthy of discussion at all is that I happen to be in an industry that leaves people unsure as to whether or not I should be tipped. I'm continually asked whether or not I'm salaried, which I am, though not particularly exorbitantly. Some people in similar positions typically are not, especially museum docents. Let it be said that everyone loves a tip. It's extra dollars in our pockets. Every little bit helps, as they say.
Please don't ask the question "do you/ can you accept a tip/ gratuity?" This puts the recipient in a somewhat awkward position. No one honestly wants to answer "no" to that question, but they may be encouraged to do so by their employer. While most employers will condemn soliciting them, most smart ones won't forbid the accepting of tips, realizing a gesture that could read as "your money's not good enough for me" is not necessarily good for business. Answering to that question, "yes, please, I gladly accept tips!" feels tacky and greedy. If you feel the person deserves a tip, just put the money in their hand and don't take "no" for an answer.
Be aware that a very small tip can be more insulting than none at all. Not tipping (outside of restaurants) suggests you didn't realize it was customary or just didn't think of it. A small one says you felt obligated to tip but you didn't really think the person did a very good job. This can cause embarrassing situations, as well, if you happen to be someplace rather snooty. I once heard a story about a waiter at a very upscale restaurant chasing down a patron to return an insultingly meager tip. He said at some volume, "here, you obviously need this money more than I do," and gave the money back.
Customs about tipping are pretty much different everywhere you go in the world. In an attempt to take the guesswork out of it here, I've come up with this basic rule of thumb: Tip those quality employees who provide a personalized service for you, but who will not receive any kind of commission from their employer for doing a good job. Conveniently, this rule includes my job in the description, but I still think it's a fair one.
For one example, restaurant wait staff are paid considerably less than they might otherwise be, in anticipation that they're working primarily for their tips. In this case, the tip is much like a commission for a job well done. In other words, unlike a retail store employee who can encourage or discourage a sale, a waiter's performance has little bearing on whether or not you'll be purchasing food once you've sat down in a restaurant. That's pretty much a given.
I'll also take this opportunity to weigh in on the low-class individuals who "don't believe in" tipping restaurant wait staff. When you sit down at a table in a restaurant, you are entering into a social contract, the same as everyone else, and the tip is a part of that contract. If you don't want to tip, then eat at a fast food place. Whether or not you "agree with" the practice of paying waitstaff lower salaries in anticipation of tips is beyond irrelevant. That's how it works. By not tipping, you are sabotaging the system for the rest of us. Let me be clear, a zero-dollar tip at a restaurant is not zero dollars for the waiter. That's negative ten percent, and you're now quite literally stealing from that person's paycheck. An eight- to ten-percent tip is around zero. Fifteen percent is normal good service. Twenty or above is truly exceptional service.
On the other side of this are the people who feel guilty for tipping a waiter anything less than fifteen percent, regardless of how miserable the service was. Maybe surprisingly, I do condone tipping lower when it is legitimately justified because of an opinion I once heard. It's that if the person in question is truly that bad at their job, then they really ought to find another line of work. If it's the only work they can get, then they ought to take their job performance more seriously. I believe that's true. And if the person is great, then they'll get that twenty percent from me, no question.
Another thing I'd recommend watching out for, if you're traveling with a lot of people, is the compulsory fifteen percent automatically added to the bill for large parties. I once had dinner with a relatively large group of people at a restaurant in San Francisco. I had never in my life had a waiter more incompetent than this woman. She forgot my order not once, but twice, everyone but me was served, then my food arrived about ten minutes later, and a few other things that I have chosen to block out of my memory. But her entirely unearned tip was already added, so she could let her performance slide, and I had no recourse. It might be to sit everyone at one enormous table if you're celebrating a special occasion. But if practical, I recommend breaking up into tables of four or five people so your server has a real incentive to serve you properly.
With a clothing store employee, if they do a good job, it may mean the difference between a sale or not. Granted, not all clothing stores award commissions to their salespeople, but that would be the rationale behind not tipping them in the parameters of my rule, despite the fact that their service can sometimes be personalized. Usually it wouldn't be. Furthermore, a nosey, pushy retail store employee can actually be more annoying than helpful.
The personalized aspect is explained well by taxi drivers and hotel bellhops and room service staff. Bellhops don't make a ton of money, either, but they are paid for their work. What they do for you, however, carrying your luggage to your room, is about as personalized as it gets. So they are tipped, though not as much as a waiter. The service of a hotel concierge can be extremely personal, but their "commissions" come in the form of innumerable perks like free dinners at the best table at every five-star restaurant in town (that's hyperbole, but you might be surprised).
Museum docents are a strange breed. I've never seen anyone tip them, although I'm sure it does happen. I'd say they mostly fall into three categories of people. Some are museum curators making gobs of money already, anyway. Others are college student interns, the benefits for whom are educational, not monetary. The third are rich old ladies with time to spare who volunteer for these positions and probably don't need an extra five dollars. What docents do is also not very personalized. Any personal relationship between docents and their audiences can only very rarely develop, simply because of the nature of the environment. An exception to this that I might foresee would be, for example, a docent addressing a group of adults on their level who makes a concerted effort to also engage a small child there with his or her parent in a way that's appropriate to the child's age. That shows personalized attention and is worthy of recognition.
If I'm to be honest about my own position as a tour guide, I'd say I'm tipped by about a third of my guests, on average about five to ten dollars at a time. The least I've been tipped was maybe two dollars, the most from one person I think was forty. That was a good day. According to a lot of people I meet, I really am the best tour guide in New York XD, and I go out of my way to personalize what I do, so I may be tipped more than most. But if your group is twenty or thirty people, I'd suggest everyone who enjoyed themselves just give one dollar toward a tip. A single dollar is meager compared to the admission fees for most things in the city. If only five people enjoyed the experience, that's a five-dollar tip, which is not terrible. Everyone? That's a thirty-dollar tip, and most people would be extremely grateful for that. A tour director who rides with you on a chartered bus and spends the majority of your trip helping your group should be tipped relatively generously, I'd say somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty dollars for each day spent with you.
However much you decide to tip someone outside of a restaurant--where the tipping percentages are more or less standardized--the best compliment you can give a person is using small bills. A tip of a twenty-dollar bill is wonderful, but that could either mean you thought they deserved twenty dollars, or that you thought they deserved something, and a twenty was the smallest bill you had on you. A ten and two fives, on the other hand, says five was not enough, ten was not enough, fifteen was not enough. No, this person deserved a twenty-dollar tip and nothing less. Even better than this was something that happened to me a couple of weeks ago. A couple had no cash, or not enough cash on them. They literally went to an ATM machine and came back to tip me. I could not have been more flattered.
©2013, Ryan Witte