Is your waiter playing mind games?
Last Updated May 8, 2007
In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell tells the reader about an art historian who knew instantly that an ancient statue was a fake, a tennis coach who can tell a player will double-fault before he attempts the serve, and a psychologist who can tell within minutes of meeting a couple whether their marriage will last.
Gladwell uses these and other examples to try to explain how some people can size up a situation in seconds and know what's what in the blink of an eye.
Is your waiter using the same type of skill to influence the tip?
Gladwell calls the process "thin slicing," referring to an observer who is able to home in on relevant information immediately and form an accurate conclusion.
A good restaurant server can often size up a table for tips the way Gladwell’s psychologist sizes up a couple for marital bliss. A few minutes in, and some servers can predict whether the table will leave a healthy 20 per cent or just round up to the nearest dollar.
Tipping your hand
Much of this is divined from our physical and verbal cues. We go out to restaurants in different moods, with different people and for different reasons. A good server uses gut instinct and common sense to give us the kind of service we require on that particular occasion. Maybe we’re part of a lovey-dovey couple or an intense business meeting and want solitude. Maybe we’re out with the dreaded in-laws or kooky cousin, and are desperate for any distraction the server can provide.
Sheryl Campbell saw them all in her 10 years of waiting tables in Edmonton. She could usually gauge what her tables wanted: "If the table has given you lots of detailed requests up front, then you know they want to be left alone and you just manage all the things they have asked for."
Using her intuition, experience and old-fashioned good service, she said she did all right waiting tables. "Good servers will get some clarification on how much time a table has to spend at the beginning, so they know how to gauge everything."
Experience helps, but these days scientific research is also available to help servers improve their approach to customers.
Researchers at The Center for Hospitality Research at the Cornell Hotel School in Ithaca, N.Y., have produced a report entitled Mega Tips: Scientifically Tested Techniques to Increase Your Tips. Based on research in 21 different American restaurants, the researchers determined servers can adopt certain behaviours that will increase their tips.
In North America, it’s customary to tip servers in a restaurant 15 per cent to 20 per cent of the bill before tax. But tipping servers in other countries can be offensive and even illegal. If you are travelling, you will want to follow the "when-in-Rome-do-as-the-Romans" rule and respect the local customs.
Magellans.com offers an extensive international tipping guide and these general guidelines:
- Asia and the Pacific: Special care must be taken to ensure that your well-meaning gesture is not taken as insulting, which is a possibility in this part of the world. Customs can vary greatly by country. If you are unsure, it is best not to tip. If possible, observe the locals and follow their lead.
- Europe: Many hotels and restaurants add a service charge to the bill automatically. In most cases, an additional tip is unnecessary. If no service charge is added to your bill, 10 per cent is the general rule for restaurant service; for porters and bellhops, $1 (or the local equivalent) per bag will be appreciated.
- Middle East/Africa: While your tip will not be seen as insulting, it may be unexpected and unnecessary. Once again, the best bet is to do as the locals do.
- Central/South America: Many hotels and restaurants in this region add a service charge to the bill, and an additional tip is unnecessary. If not, 10 per cent is the general rule for restaurant service, and the equivalent of $1 per bag for porters and bellhops.
Fishing for bigger tips
Cornell professors have studied how servers can earn larger tips, because they reason that bigger tips mean satisfied customers. That leads to satisfied servers, which leads to a reduction in staff turnover, which leads to happy management.
As professor Mike Lynn explains on the Cornell website: "When tips rise, everyone benefits."
Lynn has come up with 14 tips-for-tips and put them in a downloadable "Mega Tips" training manual. (There’s no charge for his Mega Tips, but Lynn does request you send him a tip).
Some of the advice includes general good manners, such as offering a warm smile. There is also guidance about things to talk about, such as the weather. Apparently, when a server forecasts good weather, customers are more likely to leave a bigger tip.
A server in a restaurant in Houston increased her tips to 15 per cent from an average of 12 per cent simply by squatting down next to her tables when she talked with people, forming a closer connection with them, according to the study.
Lynn’s other Mega Tips for servers include drawing pictures on the cheque (no word on the specific effect of little hearts dotting an "i"), or wearing unusual ornaments or clothing. He also suggests we’re prone to leave a larger tip if our server introduces themselves by name, entertains us with jokes or puzzles, reads our order back to us, and writes "Thank You" on the bill.
There are a couple of corporate tricks on the list, too, such as practising suggestive selling and using tip trays embossed with credit card logos.
Finally, Lynn suggests we’ll tip more when our server calls us by name, gives us after-dinner candies and touches us briefly on the arm or shoulder.
Still, very few of us ever object to getting candy, but plenty of us would prefer not to be touched by a jokester who is wearing unusual clothing and telling us the sun will shine when we know rain is in the forecast. So a tip about the tips may be in order for servers everywhere: Supplement your reading on Mega Tips with Malcolm Gladwell’s book to help hone your intuitive skills. That way you’ll have a better shot at knowing when to pour it all on, and when hold off on the table squats and jokes.
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