How do you praise good service? Give a miserly gratuity

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The Independent Online

Plastic boxes filled with coins may sit on every coffee shop counter in the country, but when it comes to tipping, Britain is still a nation that prefers to keep the change.

While nine out of 10 Britons regularly tip, they give on average below 10 per cent, far less than customers across the Atlantic, where a 15 to 20 per cent tip is standard, according to a poll released today.

The 89 per cent of Britons who do tip leave just 8.5 per cent of the total bill on average, well below the 10 per cent usually suggested as an acceptable gratuity for good service.

Tipping is still very much a social minefield, according to the poll commissioned by Cater Allen, a private bank. The tipping behaviour of a public unsure of the etiquette is erratic to say the least.

Although only half of respondents said they tipped hairdressers, those that did said they tipped on average 11 per cent, the highest percentage paid for a specific type of service. Three quarters of those questioned said they would not tip someone delivering a pizza while just one in five said they would leave money for a chambermaid. A quarter of us still prefer not to tip staff in restaurants.

The history of tipping is as mysterious as the unwritten rules that govern it. The word is sometimes said to be an acronym for "to insure promptitude". But etymologists have traced its origin to the 16th century where it simply meant to hand something over.

Tipping for good service is generally thought to have been invented in 17th-century London, but the concept is still not as accepted here as it is in the US, where employees in the service sector, an industry worth an estimated £13bn a year, earn most of their money from tips.

Britain's stingy reputation was broadcast around the world earlier this year when Swiss newspapers outed Prince William and a group of his friends for leaving a 1 per cent tip on a restaurant bill during a skiing holiday.

Despite the British public's reputation for being less than generous when handing out gratuities, restaurants here are starting to rely on tips to supplement wage packets – in effect allowing the owners to benefit from the public's largesse.

The practice has been spreading since the Inland Revenue ruled in October 2006 that tips could be considered part of wages if administered independently through a pool scheme.

An investigation by The Independent on Sunday in May revealed that Carluccio's, a leading Italian restaurant chain, paid its 300 waiting staff just £3.75 per hour, well below the minimum wage, now £5.52 for employees over the age of 22. The company said it monitored tips and service to ensure they lifted earnings to at least the minimum wage, or else made up the difference. Many restaurant owners have defended such a system as a way of bringing out the best service skills in their staff.

But if China's example is anything to go by, public attitudes towards gratuities do not have to remain unchanged. Recent visitors to any of China's east coast mega cities will have noticed that tipping, a phenomena formerly seen as a capitalist custom that encouraged inequality, is undergoing something of a renaissance – an occurrence made all the more ironic by the often-seen sign in American restaurants proclaiming: "Tipping is not a city in China".

Tipping points

76 per cent

the proportion of people who tip restaurant workers

65 per cent

the proportion of people who tip taxi drivers

50 per cent

the proportion of people who tip hairdressers.

25 per cent

the proportion of people who tip pizza delivery workers

20 per cent

the proportion of people who tip chambermaids

28 per cent

the proportion of people who decline to pay automatic service charges

33 per cent

the proportion of people who think their partners should tip more