Do we tip to impress others?

Larry David: Hates being out tipped

Tipping a waiter might not impress your friends as much as a new skin-tight lycra suit would impress a peloton of cyclists, but giving money away without any hope of a return does seem to suggest an act of largess that one might hope will score him or her some social status points.

No one would admit to it of course, that defeats the purpose of nonchalantly handing the money over in the first place. But maybe tipping can be seen as an act of ‘conspicuous consumption’ and is the reason we do it. We would notice when somebody else tips, maybe. What do we think when we see it?

We might say “He’s got no chance with that barmaid no matter how much he gives her”. But he tips her just in case and we find amusement at his misdirected funds.

Or do we surreptitiously, perhaps even subconsciously, compete with those around us? Someone leaves the change on that silver plate that so often graces the tops of bars, so we might feel the need to do the same.

Or is it, you know you’re entitled to $7.00 in change after paying for your share of dinner but nobody else is putting their hand in the pile of cash to collect theirs, so you think you had better not either?

Maybe its not that we’re conscious of climbing the social ladder via tipping, but that doesn’t mean we want others to use us as the rung that they climb on. Perhaps some of us tip because we feel we have to, just to keep up?

This all goes unspoken, but its happening. Its happens in Australia and it happens regularly.


Who better than Larry David to over analyse this minute and unspoken aspect of our everyday existence.

David stars in Curb Your Enthusiasm, a sitcom where he portrays a fictionalised version of himself. In the episode titled The Reunion, David feels the pain of being out-tipped by his friend.

Larry: Remember I was sitting here yesterday?

Waiter: Yeah.

Larry: Do you mind telling me how much tip the guy I was with left you?

[After some negotiating]

Waiter: It was a healthy, healthy tip.

Larry: Was mine a healthy tip?

Waiter: Yeah.

Larry: Was his healthier? … Was it over twelve dollars?

Waiter: I can really get in trouble if I talk to you about that.

Larry: Nobody even knows what we’re talking about. Scratch your face with your finger if it was over twelve dollars. Go ahead just scratch it. Was it over twelve dollars?

[Waiter scratches his face]

Larry: Oh, for god’s sake. What an asshole! Let me ask you a question. Was it over fifteen dollars? Just tug on your tie up here. Was it over fifteen?

Waiter: This is making me really uncomfortable.

Larry: Nobody’s even knows what we’re talking about! Was it over fifteen dollars? Tug on your tie.

[Waiter tugs on his tie]

Larry: Oh my fucking… FUCK!


This might be a bit over the top compared to a typical Australian experience. But next time you’re out with people at a restaurant or bar, watch what they do. I’ll bet they’re watching you.

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6 Responses to Do we tip to impress others?

  1. Gus says:

    I think you have opened up a broader discussion here. I can’t help but think that you are now looking at social conformity issues – and this also be small scale example of groupthink? Maybe cuba won’t be invaded… but you get the idea.

    In terms of individual transactions (eg: in a group of people at a bar, buying drinks individually) you could have some people showing off in a very obvious way – I have money, I can afford it, I can show the ladies a good time etc etc. Some people may feel the need to conform or match, or even go one better. Possibly even quiet, subdued types may feel the need to tip or increase the size of the tips. That said, in this scenario there is possibly less need to conform as the transaction is more personal and more private.

    In group situations, it might depend very much on the mix of people and their personality types. Quiet or shy people may just often follow the leader – who may or may not leave a tip. Imagine the dominant, loud, leader of the group leaving the tip – some people would just leave their share of the change for fear of rocking the boat or being ridiculed as being tight/cheap/stingy etc. Likewise, if the leader takes their share of the change (I can i imagine someone loud protesting that the restaurant doesn’t deserve it), most people would just take their share and move on. In this context, it could be similar to how groups choose restaurants in the first place – shy people may already be at a more expensive place than they can afford, plus now they are leaving a tip – the price of fitting in.

    If your research project isn’t big enough yet, perhaps you can look into group behavours and social conformity?

    • tippingoz says:

      Its funny you should say that. The majority of studies on tipping, which included considerations of group size, indicate that the larger the group the lower the percentage tip. (These are all US studies.) There have been a few explanations for this, but I guess the point is that for all our talk on tipping to impress others, many of us, when at a restaurant at least, (again, this may only apply to Americans) tip more when on our own. (That doesn’t mean we don’t tip for social pressure reasons on other occasions, but perhaps goes to show that the same action can have multiple causes/intentions/meanings.)

      • Gus says:

        Without doing any research (hey, it’s not my project….), I am not surprised that the % tip left declines as the group gets bigger. Off the top of my head I can think of two reasons:
        – Rounding – Round a $40 meal for 2 up to $50, round a $90 meal for 4 up to $100.
        – Dollar value vs work performed. A group of 5 people may spend $130 and leave a $20 tip. Waiting on a group of 10 people who spend 260 may not require twice the effort on the part of the waiter (or it may be seen that way). leaving a $40 tip may seem excessive given the time the group was there, etc etc.

        Tipping on your own suggests you are trying to impress the waiter/waitress/etc, tipping in a group would make me think you are more likely trying to impress someone in the group – or simply fit in.

  2. the flashy tipper. says:

    Where tipping is not a social norm I think this theory has explanatory power. I like the way it assumes no altruism, and works with people’s incentives.
    The peacock’s tail, the lion’s mane and the mercedes benz all stand as proof that animals will waste precious resources to demonstrate their prowess.

    Incidentally, tipping is also one reason why restaurants say “no split bills”.
    If everyone just puts in a twenty or (if you don’t go to dodgy BYO places like me) a fifty for dinner, they are unlikely to seek out amounts of change in the 5c to $9.95 range. Thus the waiter gets a nice fat tip.
    But if each chump goes to the register or does their own bill, they are more likely to pocket the coinage, and the waiter misses out.

    • tippingoz says:

      I didn’t deliberately exclude considerations of altruism, but I agree there doesn’t appear to be any room for it in this post. Perhaps because I’m not convinced it actually exists (in its pure form anyway). Much the same as free-will… (But that’s a discussion for another blog.)

      I had never thought of the “no split bills” policy as another strategy to increase tips before. I’ll have to look into that.

  3. DB says:

    Oh, please. You should be able to judge the % by the quality of the place. What pisses me off is these fancy ass places that demand their waiters be tipped more than a regular restaurant. Are they really doing much of a different job? It’s an obvious “NO.” If it’s such a fancy place than maybe they should treat their waiters better instead of putting the burden on you. Just because they’re serving better food doesn’t mean that they should get that much of a better tip.

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