Tipping etiquette: When and how much it’s appropriate to tip

During pandemic-induced lockdown periods in Canada, some social norms fell by the wayside as people spent more of their time at home with their roommates or immediate family.

One of those norms was tipping on meals in restaurants. With restaurant dining rooms closed for months at a time, and patios largely inaccessible during the winter months, dining out became a relic of the pre-pandemic world.

Now that restaurants across the country are open for indoor dining again, some Canadians might wonder if the societal rules for tipping have changed in the last two-to-three years. For example, data by Restaurants Canada shows Canadians are tipping a higher percentage of their restaurant bills compared to before the pandemic.

To help clarify the latest rules of engagement, Julie Blais Comeau, chief etiquette officer at etiquettejulie.com, offers some tipping advice.

IS TIPPING IN RESTAURANTS MANDATORY?

Although tipping in restaurants is not common in some parts of the world, such as across Europe, Blais Comeau said it is an entrenched cultural practice in Canada, and part of the informal social contract according to which people here live together. It is not a legal requirement, but it is a practice service industry workers rely on for some of their income.

“It’s a collective agreement everybody in that society makes or recognizes,” Blais Comeau said in an interview with CTVNews.ca over the phone on Friday. “It is expected to the point where even the federal government will tax these people on what they perceive would be that compensation of tipping, so that should be very clear.”

Under the current social norms, Blais Comeau said leaving the restaurant without tipping your server would be a major faux pas.

“Even if the service wasn’t good, there’s still that convention about that custom of tipping. You can certainly tip less, and then to make sure you mention why,” she said.

“There are some people who choose not to tip anymore and I think that is not recognizing the society that you’re in…and forgetting that you’re a citizen. That element of collectivity, that element of society, that’s what etiquette is. Etiquette evolves with the times.”

WHAT SHOULD A STANDARD TIP BE?

Blais Comeau said the standard restaurant tip across Canada is between 15 and 18 per cent of the bill, before taxes. She said 15 per cent is appropriate in most cases. However, anyone who wants to build a good relationship with an establishment – for example, someone who often conducts business meetings there – might want to tip a higher amount. Likewise, exceptional service might merit a higher tip.

Even if the service is flawed, Blais Comeau said, diners should still tip.

“When service is not appropriate, when service is not good, there should still be a payment because you were served,” she said. “You can go downward to maybe 10 per cent. But the most important thing is to mention it to the manager, because if they don’t know, they can’t fix it.”

WHAT IF A DEBIT MACHINE PROMPTS FOR A HIGHER TIP?

Blais Comeau said a growing number of restaurants across the country are programming their debit machines to suggest tip percentages that are above the standard 15 to 18 per cent. She said people should tip more if they want to, but that it’s not a requirement.

“Do not be intimidated by that 20 to 25 per cent suggestion on the machine,” she said. “There’s always that option where you can personalize it, customize it and input 15 per cent.”

SHOULD I TIP FOR A HAIRCUT OR OTHER PERSONAL SERVICE?

Blais Comeau said it is customary to tip on services such as haircuts, manicures, pedicures and cab rides, though not to the same degree as in restaurants.

“It’s usually around 10 per cent for all those services,” she said.

She cautioned it is not appropriate to offer a monetary tip for any treatment prescribed by a doctor, or for which the person delivering the service might be subject to a code of ethics. The same goes for tipping teachers, coaches, health-care workers and anyone for whom a monetary tip could be mistaken as a bribe.

ARE THERE RULES FOR RESTAURANTS?

Tipping etiquette goes both ways, and Blais Comeau said restaurant staff should never intimidate customers into providing a tip, nor should they reprimand them for not leaving an adequate tip.

She also considers it a faux pas when restaurants assign labels like “good,” “great,” and “excellent” to certain tipping percentages on a debit terminal.

“The first time I was presented a terminal with (the words) ‘wow’ and ‘super’ I was like, ‘Oh my god. I’m a grown woman,’” she said. “I came to the restaurant with the understanding that I should tip, but I certainly don’t want to be guided in an extra way.”