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Tipping, it's something most of us do just about every day, in a restaurant or a taxi or the coffee shop. We don't tip for every service, but some countries don't tip at all.

And that got Caitlin Kenney of our Planet Money team wondering: Why did Americans start tipping in the first place?

CAITLIN KENNEY: If you ask people why they tip, they'll say it's obvious: I tip for good service, of course, a reward for a job well done. Jessica Gibson, works in an Irish pub in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and she thinks that's why people tip her.

Ms. JESSICA GIBSON: I would say it is pretty merit-based. I mean, I do feel like the harder I work, the greater service I provide, for the most part, I'm compensated for that.

KENNEY: But the data on tipping doesn't support that. Studies show that the size of the tip doesn't have much to do with the quality of the service.

Mr. MICHAEL LYNN (Professor, Cornell University School of Hotel Administration): It's a pretty weak relationship.

KENNEY: This is Michael Lynn. Lynn used to wait tables at Pizza Hut. Now he is a professor at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration.

Mr. LYNN: Studies have found for example that the amount of sunshine outside have as big an impact as the tips customers leave as the customer's ratings of service quality.

KENNEY: The weather, what kind of mood people are in, these factors matter just as much as how good the service is. And if you press Jessica Gibson from the pub about this, even she admits that when she tips it rarely has anything to do with service.

Ms. GIBSON: I would never tip less than 20 percent. I mean, you could vomit on my plate and I would still tip you 20 percent.

KENNEY: Jessica Gibson, like a lot of people, tips pretty much the same amount no matter what. It may vary by a buck or two but not by much. So if we aren't tipping because we think we'll get better service, why are we doing it?

Michael Lynn says there is another possible explanation. It's one put forward by an anthropologist named George Foster. His idea is that we tip because we feel guilty about having people wait on us. It's a way of saying, here, have a drink on me when you're done work.

Mr. LYNN: His evidence to support this theory is that the word for tip in many different languages around the world - in Austria, Belgium, Bosnia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Norway, Sweden, even Vietnam - the word for tip translates to drink money.

KENNEY: This is the social pressure theory of tipping. And it also explains why we tip the people we do. We tend to tip in places where we're having a lot more fun than the people serving us: bars, restaurants, cruise ships. But we usually don't tip in grocery stores or dentist offices. I ran this guilt theory by Corey Norris. He works at a hotel casino in Reno.

Mr. COREY NORRIS: I'm a fulltime bellhop, and I work the graveyard shift.

KENNEY: He says he thinks guilt is a big reason people tip him.

Mr. NORRIS: If you're going to ask help for somebody to pull your luggage up to your room at two, three, four in the morning, are you really not going to the tip the guy? I get the feeling, I really do get the feeling that people feel guilty asking for help at such a late, late hour.

KENNEY: And Corey Norris plays off this guilt. He says if people don't give him a tip, he asks for their claim check tag. You know, that's the little piece of paper that the bellhop gives you when they keep your bags and you go upstairs. Corey says people usually keep this card in their pocket or their wallet. So handing it back to him without giving him a tip would be really uncomfortable. Most of the time, it works, and people end up slipping him a few bucks.

But if you think about it from the other person's perspective, if you are the one doing the tipping, this can be a really awkward situation. How do you know if you've tipped enough or tipped the right people? Professor Michael Lynn says that's the problem.

Mr. LYNN: I think it's quite possible that tipping norms undermine overall satisfaction or happiness. The social pressures people feel to give up money they would rather keep, that loss - I mean, for them, tipping is a net loss. And it's very possible that that net loss exceeds the benefits.

KENNEY: If we did away with tipping, restaurants would have to raise prices to pay their staff more. But they don't want to do that, and the servers don't like that idea much either. Most of the servers I talked to say they like feeling like they have control over how much money they make; they like working for tips.

Caitlin Kenney, NPR News.

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