Monday, June 09, 2008

The Classic Tip Question

Dear Korean,

I don't like to generalize about any race because it is of course racist, but it just seems that Koreans are the absolute worst tippers of any foreign transplant here. It seems like Koreans that come here are anxious to assimilate in every other aspect. I understand that America is very unique versus Europe and the East but it seems like most people get that point early on. I don't believe it's from maltreatment or a societal thing from your past country. So what it is it? I'm not some disgruntled waiter or even angry about it even though I did work my way through college that way. I'm just curious.

Can't spell it properly but Com sah hameedah and anyo ee ah say yoh!


Dear Roy,

Ah, the classic question for all minorities – why don’t colored people tip well? (The Mexican version from the Mexican is here.)

The Korean wouldn’t know if Koreans are the worst tippers – it’s not like he ever did any statistical study on this. But from personal experience, it does feel like Koreans in general tip a little lightly. Why could this be?

First, the article that the Mexican cites is absolutely worth reading. If 24 page article scares you too much, here is a 9 page version that focuses less on numbers and more on explanation.
Of course the study did not focus on Koreans, but it did focus on Asians. The relevant passages say:
 “This study also found that Asians tipped less than did Whites. … The Asian-White difference in tipping became smaller and nonsignificant after statistically controlling for each of the following mediators: service, dining-party size, frequency of restaurant patronage, and restaurant identity. Frequency of restaurant patronage and restaurant identity (reflecting differences in restaurant expensiveness, among other things) should both be strongly affected by income, so these two mediators suggest that Asian–White differences in tipping may be attributable to income effects.”
That’s interesting. But what about Koreans? The Korean would go out on a limb and say the tipping problem is mostly confined to first generation immigrants, because from second generation and on, cultural norm about tipping would be pretty difficult not to conform. (Because second generation people actually have non-Korean people in their social circles, and they wouldn’t want to embarrass themselves.)

So what about Koreans that leads to poor tips? As you might have guessed, the 15 percent tip is a uniquely American institution. Europe tips around 10 percent, and Asia including Korea has no tips. In restaurants where foreigners would frequent, e.g. those in a nice hotel, the bottom of the menu tends to say “15% gratuity is included.” But the Korean never learned if 15 percent of the bill actually goes to the waiting staff.

In fact, there is only one occupation in Korea that collects tips: strippers. So tipping anyone in Korea, especially young women, could be a huge insult. (However, if the change is an insignificant amount, say less than a dollar, leaving the change is ok.)

The Korean thinks it’s ultimately a matter of expectation. Americans internalized the tip and sales tax such that when they see a 10 dollar meal, they expect to pay around 14 dollars. But first generation Koreans spent their whole lives in a way that when they see a price tag of 10 dollars, they expect to pay 10 dollars. So when they realize they have to pay more than what is printed on the menu, it feels like they are being ripped off.

Furthermore, when the idea of tipping is first introduced to the newly immigrated, it is not introduced as “money that waiters/waitresses rightfully deserve if they give not-horrible service, because they do not make minimum wage.” Rather, it is introduced as “an incentive payment for good service.”
Now, Koreans generally do not care too much about good service. (The Korean touched upon this topic in this post.) But if they had to pay for it, boy, the service had better be good. It ends up becoming like an old episode of Third Rock from the Sun, where clueless aliens, upon first learning about tipping, decided to incentivize the waitress by adding to and subtracting from a pile of money on the table each time the waitress does anything.

Lastly, (pure conjecture at this point,) it could also be that poor-tipping Koreans tend to be more on the employer side than employee side, since most of the first generation Koreans are entrepreneurs who own businesses, including restaurants. It is possible that they have less sympathy for the travails of the waiting staff. 

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. It has always frustrated me in Korea that tips are actually difficult, if not (as suggested in the blog), insulting to offer.

    Personally I've always viewed a tip as a financial thankyou; if a waitress/taxi driver/haidresser etc makes my day more enjoyable then I will offer a tip. I will generally avoid restaurants that enforce a 10/15% service charge because the idea of being told that I will have to thank everyone before a service is rendered is insulting to me, and the gesture is meaningless besides. Fortunately this perfidious American system has not fully infiltrated the UK yet.

    I have never received such wonderful customer service, from every arm of the service industry, as I have in Korea. They work for no tips, and in absence of any 'pre-tips' and yet they are the most respectful, aware and considerate people that I have ever had the fortune of serving me dinner, cutting my hair, or driving me home. Which is why I am so frustrated that whenever I try to offer money O get a look like I just kicked someone's gran and spat in their face. (when I tried to offer one of my colleagues money within a week of arriving for helping me so much it took a day to rectify the insult).

    I reckon the reason they don't tip well is just this - it's unknown, unaccepted and, as the Korean said, just not internalised. I know that if I went to America I would be a very poor tipper too - but then in a developed country, nay THE developed country, I don't understand why I should be handing over near a 5th of the price of my drink just because someone poured it. (after years of working as a barman I was happy enough if someone valued my service, and usually conversation, enough to buy me one drink on a good night out)

  2. I think you'll find that Aussies are rotten tippers too. The service industry in Australia can actually be a place to make fast money, partly because of our 'minimum wage' legislation. We tend only to tip as a result of good or friendly service, and even then its generally "kep the change" rather then a set percent.

  3. As a black person, I can definitely say that the article's right, it's just a different mindset. I don't know what's up with white folks and tipping. lol!

    Until I started hanging out with white folks who had money, I had NEVER heard of giving a 20% tip. Seriously?! These days I've gotten in the habit of leaving that much but quite honestly, I still think it's a bit much. Servers should get paid minimum wage.

    1. I'm white and work at a Korean restaurant. Nobody of any race tips , the only thing that saves me is the free food and minimum wage laws. I too don't tip on outing (the food is over charged already). I think we need to raise the minimum wage law to compensate for the poor tips .

  4. The only place I found I HAD to tip in Korea is at hair salons. (Especially the expensive ones) It's so confusing for me how much I should leave, and who to give it to sometimes. (At the counter or to the person who actually cut it) I also can't stand the inane chatter I have to go through while getting my hair done, so I tend to tip more to the ones who leave me alone. But I know that's not what Koreans would consider "good" service, so consequently I cut my hair mim once a year, breaking another Korean convention of always being presentable.

  5. I think the practice of not tipping is also prevalent in the UK. It was reported in TMZ that David Beckham's family left no tip at all in a trendy restaurant. They interpreted that as the Beckhams being cheapskates, but it was likely a cultural misunderstanding.

  6. I live in the UK, everyone tips here, except in pubs and cafes where you order at the counter, take it to the table your own self. The Beckhams are cheap, in every sense of the word.
    Nice bit of writing about tipping

  7. I moved to SoCal two years ago. Tipping was surly one of the most difficult cultural/financial aspect to get accustomed to.

    Yes, I felt like that I'm ripped off when I leave tips regardless of the service level. :)

    One thing I still don't understand is that why waiting staffs in bars and restaurants don't get minimum wage? The other aspect of tipping is waiting staff in fine-dining restaurant vs local joints. One of my friends know a waiting staff who's made 100K a year working in a fancy restaurant. Yes, it was not the wage but tips. waiting staffs in small local joints surly don't make that sort of money from tip.

  8. As to the minimum wage question, techincally people in the service industry earn minimum wage. But their minimum wage is lowered by something called "tip allowance". Size of the tip allowance is different from state to state.

  9. Korean people are cheap and thats why they don't tip. Koreans complain about everything and no matter what the answer, they won't accept it and will continue to complain. While Koreans drive around in their Chairman or Equus they pay the employees of their own business' at best $1 to $3. Here is how it works-If you want to work for, lets say a hair salon- you first go through a three year apprenticeship where you get no benefits (none), you work a minimun of 12 hours a day for seven days a week for two weeks out of the month and 6 days the other two weeks. Your pay is W2,000 KRW = $2.00. So thats equal to about $150 a week, but wait there are fees that you need to pay the owner of the store such as air tax, cleaning fees, the stores insurance and anything else that doesn't make sense. This needs no embellishment and is simply an accurate account of what my girlfriend and her friends have been through, the answer they gave when I asked them "why" was "thats the Korean style".

  10. Jacob, you are goddamn ignorant. As to your girlfriend's employer, there are flagrant violations of Korean labor laws identified in what you wrote. Currently the minimum wage in Korea is KRW 3770 per hour. It was not below KRW 2000 in 9 years. Have her contact Ministry of Labor to receive her backpay.

  11. it is also for the simple fact that tipping in Korea does not exist as a whole. as you stated above the only people who seem to get tipped are strippers; albeit that may be true, but also it is known that when it comes to tipping in Korea it is only with hotels that foreigners or people in general stay at. usually the tip at the hotel is integrated within the bill.

    also another tip that would be seen would be with cab drivers and that is only if the cab driver himself gets out and helps you with your luggage.

    "Tipping Koreans is just not done. That includes restaurants and delivery people. In most hotels, tips are included in the bill."
    Korean Customs

    so as a whole of if Koreans do not tip, and you do not tip in Korea, it would be a safe bet that they are horrible tippers simply for the fact it is not done in the cultural setting.

  12. "Currently the minimum wage in Korea is KRW 3770 per hour."

    Is that right? How does anyone live in this country? I mean, yes, many things are much cheaper than they are in the states, especially things like eating out (at Korean family restaurants, I'm not talking about Itaewon here) but seriously, between things like Key Money on apartments or the cost of gas... well, I guess that's why people live with their families until they get married? I get 2.1 a month.. I'll never complain again, especially hearing about what hourly wage workers get...

  13. As a black hispanic, i can totally see where you are coming from. Tipping is a very white eurocentric thing. When the average african american person sees a price, they take it at face value, they don't expect a meal to jump 20% for wait service. If thats the case, then just raise the prices by 20%


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