Naturalistic Observation on Tipping Behavior


Tipping is a common and yet unwritten practice in the hospitality industry in which waiters, concierges and barmen as well as stewards and delivery people among others expect to be tipped when they finish their job. Customers who do not offer tips are often labeled negatively in the related fields and the various professionals generally prefer working with the customers who are more generous on the tip. In addition, the society itself tends to label those who do not tip their service people. In this study, the researcher set out to observe the tipping habits of customers at coffee shop. Most coffee shops are self-service in that one has to go to the counter to make and pick an order. This means that the tip jar is right where everyone can see it and thus the customers are consistently under pressure to leave a tip. But for purposes of this study, the ideal coffee shop allowed customers to give their order to a waitress thus leaving them with the choice on whether to give her a tip or not.

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The Setting

The setting for this observation is a coffee shop with about half a dozen tables and a relatively large counter. There are two waitresses and one chef behind the counter as well as cashier who is also dressed like the chef. The tables in this coffee shop are not too far apart. This means that while seated on one table one can listen in on the conversation going on in the next table. The coffee shop is relatively limited in space and of the six tables, four are close to the glass walls at the front of the shop. The booths enable the customers to sit back to back, while the remaining two tables are on either side of the shop closer to the larger counter. The door is right at the center of the shop in terms of the length and thus, when a customer walks in they can walk straight up to the counter and make their order or find a seat to their right or left and wait to be served. Most of the customers who go straight to the counter want take away coffee and they leave a tip in the tip jar. Those who look for a table often stay longer and thus they interact with the waitresses and later decide on whether or not to leave a tip.

The Time

For this observation, I sat on the corner seat close to the counter so that I could face the two tables closer to the front wall. This means that I would only be able to observe two customers at a time and my target was to get at least five customers. I had to spend 3 hours observing these customers, with an average time of 45 minutes for each customer in the coffee shop, and the fact that sometimes it took over 30 minutes for another customer to walk in and take a seat.

The People and Circumstances Being Studied

The coffee shop in question is not located in a busy location. The people who frequent it are mainly employees within the nearby companies and occasional entrepreneurs who have to meet someone at the location. This means that they were mainly average individuals with the capacity to give tips. Most of them could even be considered as relatively rich based on their dressing. The coffee shop is more of a middle class location with averagely priced coffees and pastries and a class interior décor meant to attract customers who want value for their money. Buying coffee is always expensive and in the case of this particular coffee shop, the expense was worthy based on the amount of indulgence the management had allowed in the interior design. The furnishing was very high end and the ambience was relaxed, with very low and soft music playing in the background. In addition, the limited number of tables made the place look even more exclusive and thus attractive.

The Phenomena of Interest

I was interested in finding out the tipping tendencies of the average population in the country. Tipping is something that most Americans take for granted and a majority of them do not really tip because they like tipping but more because of the pressure that they feel to tip. By definition, tipping is an act of paying extra for a service for the benefit of the one rendering the service. For example, in a context where the service is given by the cashier as it happens for take-out coffee customers, the service that is being tipped for is the cashier’s. When the customer has been served by a waiter, the tip that they leave is often for the waiter. In either case, the customer pays extra for the service that they have received and this extra money is said to be a sign of gratitude for the good service. Within the American society, it is considered courteous for one to tip their service people.

Interpretation of The Events That Took Place

Considering that I was seated next to the counter at a table where all the clients that I was observing could see and even hear me, I believe that they all knew they were being observed. I had my notebooks and pens out and they could see me scribbling from time to time. The first customer made their order and waited for a friend for about twenty minutes. When the friend came, they had to leave the shop. He called for his check and gave the waiter some extra cash for her troubles. He had tipped her, and judging by her smile, he had tipped her generously. On the next table, a young woman was having coffee also while waiting for someone and when he arrived, he also ordered a cup of coffee for himself. They left together, after tipping the waitress as well. All the customers on the side of the shop in which I was seated observing ended up tipping their waitress.

Follow Up

In the follow up research, the idea is to eliminate observation. This means that the customers should not feel like they are being watched. This will enable them to make the choice of whether or not to tip their waitress without feeling as if they were under a lot of pressure from an observer. For this particular coffee shop, the best way to avoid having the customers feel like they are being watched is by sitting on the other side of the shop. The shop has two sides, each with three tables that are relatively closer to one another. This means that I would have to sit on the other half of the shop and rely more on my occasional glances than the eavesdropping and close proximity. The results for this observation will be compared with those of the first observation in which the observer was too close to the customers who were being observed. Comparing the findings will produce results on whether observation has an impact on the tipping behaviors of American customers in a coffee shop. The working hypothesis is that these customers are less likely to tip if they do not feel like they are being watched. Tipping may be a social concept but it is only practiced in an open social context. In private, most Americans do not leave tips.

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