“Bribes To Ensure Good Service:” Hawaii Tipping Goes Insane

Tipping in Hawaii has become yet another part of the tourism controversy. Yikes, as if we needed another issue. Where did the expression”bribes to ensure good service” come from? It’s historical from the time when tips began, as you’ll see below. Some say that tip, by the way, stands for “To Insure Promptitude.” Now that you know that bit of trivia, here are five frustrations you may have encountered around tipping. Before we go further, this short 30-second video will help to set the tone.

Following are five “tipping points” to coin a phrase by Malcolm Gladwell, which means the moment you reach the boiling point in critical mass. How many of these have you found yourself in, and what do you do?

Tipping Point 1: Fatigue caused by endless requests for tips.

As businesses move to digital payment services like Square, found almost everywhere in Hawaii (and elsewhere), there is the dread of receiving the ubiquitous tip screen when service has not been rendered. Just like we saw in the video above.

Tipping fatigue, in Hawaii at least, seems like it is getting out of hand more so than elsewhere. In case you missed it, Hawaii visitors are taking to social media to rail about these requests that come through for everything from buying basic coffee, take-out, online ordering, and drive-throughs.  Where is it going to end? If you break out in a cold sweat when you see the image below, then read on for more.

Tips are set by the business, and we’ve seen them go as high as 30%. Ugh.

What happened is that when we went from Hawaii’s tip jars to online requests, there entered this element of shame, embarrassment, and pressure. It’s left us feeling afraid about the food in the event we don’t leave what is deemed to be an adequate tip when ordering. Let alone what will someone standing nearby think if we opt for 15% instead of the up to 30% proposed.

Tipping Point 2: Asking for tips before service is rendered.

One restaurant even explained what the tips are for: 15% is for providing good service, while 18% would be when the service is great, 20% was for Wow! service, and 30% was for the best service ever. The problem is when service is provided after the tip is paid, since tipping was done at the point of order rather than when the service is delivered.

Anytime one is paying for something before receiving it (which is most transactions other than a classic sit-down restaurant experience), they are put in the situation of being asked for a tip by the software before they know if they’re even going to be happy with the product or service they receive. Thus your tip ends up being given out of good faith or a sense of obligation.

Tipping Point 3: Helping underpaid hospitality workers.

There’s just no doubt about it. People in Hawaii hospitality, whether they are waiters, cooks, baristas, or other staff, simply don’t get paid enough money to afford to live here. You commented widely on that in our recent post about the cost of living in Hawaii and those who are leaving.

Hourly workers, who may not even receive benefits, can make as little as $15/hour, which doesn’t provide a living wage in Hawaii. Others have suggested that the minimum wage in Hawaii should be more like $30, and we’d say they’re right. And even then, that’s when the employee is full-time and has benefits, including vacation, health care, sick leave, etc. For those who don’t, how can they even afford the $500+/month needed for basic health insurance? And that’s before talking about the minimum $2,000/mo for a one-bedroom apartment in Hawaii or the sky-high cost of food and other necessities.

Hawaii hospitality workers have come to expect to make a significant portion of their income in tips. And from the comments of some of you who work in hospitality, that just isn’t happening as it once did.

  • One commenter said, “Face it, hospitality workers need to make a minimum of $30 an hour just to barely make ends meet. Wages can be increased immediately if all these greedy employers would accept the reality and pay quality people what they are worth! Regarding visitors, the person said, “Considering you barely tip if at all, why do you expect to receive 5-star service…”
  • Another comment stated, “My 600 sqft 2 bedroom on Maui is the worst you can get here, hands down. I pay $2,300/month plus $200 electric and I turn my breakers off unless I’m using it. We get paid wage plus tips, our employers count on us to get tipped. Wages don’t cover half of what we need to survive. Missing out on a tip from a guest we served could mean we don’t make rent… Your Hawaii budget needs to include 15% tip bare minimum whatever the charge, for everything. If you can’t do that, please don’t come. We all live off of our tips.
  • And finally, in response, “Tips are for outstanding service, not to supplement employers’ wages. Tell your employer to pay you more if you don’t like your wage, but for goodness sake don’t tell customers, “Don’t come!”

These countries either pay workers enough and/or indicate that tips are not required:

Australia, New Zealand, Myanmar, Singapore, Taiwan, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and parts of Turkey. In the European Union, expect a service charge to be added to your bill. But here in the United States, it’s like the “jelly of the month” club scene in the movie Christmas Vacation. People count on tips as part of their basic income.

Tipping Point 4: Pride in tipping is gone.

It used to be that we were happy to leave great tips for exceptional service. Now it seems an expectation for everything, including mediocre performance. Let’s face it, service isn’t what it once was in most cases. So that juxtaposition is irritating to even the best tippers.

Tipping Point 5: Tipping where tipping is not expected.

Here are some personal experiences. Editor Jeff said he walked into a coffee shop (not Starbucks) on Kauai to buy a bag of whole-bean coffee, which he took off the shelf and handed to the cashier. The store uses Square for customer payments. He saw the tipping options of up to 25% on the screen. That is a turn-off, pure and simple. Who likes being asked for a tip under that circumstance? If it isn’t possible to turn it off for that type of transaction, everyone suffers. We’ll add that if Jeff had requested they grind the beans for him, he would have tipped for that service.

Editor Rob reports on a local sandwich stand where he went to the refrigerator area to select a pre-made sandwich. When he brought it to the cashier to pay, he was shown the dreaded tip menu.

But, at least for us, if the goal is to make you feel bad and perform mercy tipping, it may have just backfired.

Nonetheless, according to guilty-as-charged Square, tipping at full-service restaurants was up by more than 25% in the last quarter they studied. They said that at service counter restaurants, that growth was 17%.

How we got to this tipping point: a historical perspective.

In the 1600s, people started using tips to ensure faster service in English pubs, essentially “bribing the staff” to get special consideration. The practice was introduced to the U.S. after the Civil War by Americans wanting to mimic the European upper class. In the 1980s, there was actually significant public push-back against the practice, which was seen as perpetuating the class boundaries between rich and poor.

Obviously, the tippers won out, and the custom became commonplace, morphing from a way for the well-to-do to get expedited service to a routine part of paying the bill. Gratuity in most restaurants is no longer gratuitous or extra but instead expected, with many establishments even prescribing a minimum acceptable percentage. Already guilt rather than gratitude was becoming a primary motivator, with the very livelihood of their servers depending on this added sum.

What’s been your experience with tipping in Hawaii?

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127 thoughts on ““Bribes To Ensure Good Service:” Hawaii Tipping Goes Insane”

    1. The “dreaded tip screen”? Are you that intimidated / bullied / afraid of some flashy hardware. Just say no! Stand up for yourself!

  1. I traveled to Seattle several years ago and a majority of the restaurants added the tip in when presenting you with the bill, 20%. In some cases, you had no choice but to pay it because it was the standard “service charge” for that establishment. I’ve done a bit of traveling and this was the only place I’ve seen this.

  2. Not sure where you got your data from. But Cambodia does not pay livable wage. Culture just didn’t involve a tip. But with westernization. Tip is now added to many bills.

    1. If, and When, there’s a party of 4 or more the Restaurants will add the 18 to 20 percent tip automatically to the Bill to guarantee that the server is properly tipped. If there’s a Legitimate Reason for the Server not to receive that amount it should be taken up with Management. If the Server does an over the top job nothing says that a larger gratuity can’t be left.

  3. I went to the UK last November. I was surprised how people used their touch cards for everything, even at coffee outlets. At no time did I ever see a tip request. It was touch, and go! In France, a service charge is automatically assessed, and the percentage is not divulged, though it’s 10 to 15%. People often leave small change as well.
    Service charges are added in the US at high-end restaurants, and room service (in addition to a flat delivery fee). I think the reason why the US doesn’t go the European route is because removing the “freedom” to decide reeks of socialism.
    BTW there is no tipping in Japan either and you still get good service, though things are a changing…

  4. It is very expensive to live in Hawaii. Why doesn’t the state distribute money directly to residents like they do in Alaska. Are the tourists going to balk at a resident tax to vacation there? You need to have employees be able to work at all the places visitors are staying, eating, and activities they all enjoy while there. It’s pay to play

    1. That is between the residents and the State but a tax for supporting workers goes over the top too far. Generations of Hawaiian Voters have chosen the direction of Hawaii by who they vote for. As such everything that is Wrong can be directly traced back to the Voter. Housing too high? Not enough affordable housing? Prices out of control? Stagnated Wages and lack of Healthcare? Overcrowding? Too many Tourists? The list goes on, all traced back to the Voters. Can’t fix what has been broken for years or more in a few terms,however, keep voting the same types in and it will just get worse. Blame Yourselves.

  5. Fun article but your trivia is false. TIP is not shorthand for “To Insure Promptness. That is a myth. First of all, it would be “ensure”, not “insure.” Second, it makes no sense because you generally give a tip after meal, not before a meal. So it wouldn’t “insure” promptness because the meal is already finished.

  6. Aloha. Here in the Leeward (West) side of Oahu, we don’t get a lot if tourists outside of Ko ‘Olina. While we do get some of the same “tip me for no reason” prompts, it’s customary to ignore them. The employees expect you to and will many times do it for you to avoid the awkward situation they know that puts you in. It is weird but not a big deal.
    I have seen it be a huge thing in Waikiki, etc. No one likes it.
    Employers….. Pay your people a living wage! This is your fault.

  7. The thing I hate is when the Suggested tip amount is not only calculated on the items you purchased rather the items and the tax. The tax is passed along to the state. Actually in many cases they don’t have to pass along the whole tax only a portion of it.

  8. I just don’t tip at all. I don’t care. I won’t be shamed into paying for something I shouldn’t have to. Business owners need to pay their employees appropriately, that’s not my problem.

    1. convenient cop out … we all have to deal with R E A L I T Y such as it is….. you’d be paying a lot more upfront if other people’s tipping habits weren’t subsidizing your POV.


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