On the East Coast - a 20% tip is standard especially in NY and Boston - my son's ex-girlfriend put herself through college waitressing, so I know the score.. Wait staff in the US don't even get minimum wage thanks to some loophole in the law -- generally speaking they might get $2.50 an hour, and they get assessed for their tips when they come to pay tax which is often out of whack with what they actually get - especially in "this economy", so I tip and regard it as normal.
Just got back from Japan where there's absolutely no tipping - why can't everywhere be like that???
In a place like Charlotte which doesn't seem to be that Tourist friendly, a good tip which applies to everywhere in the US and Canada is to look for the local free weekly which you should be able to find in most restaurants and bars, it's a local TimeOut which gives all the listings, and often, surprisingly the quality of writing can be excellent as it's a place for hopeful journalists to make their first mark.
One thing I notice in at least this part of the US, and I suspect very strongly that you'll see it around places like Charlotte or Charleston where Neil found his little militarist ditty, is a sort of low-key advertising of one's Christian beliefs. Little fishes (sometimes with crosses for eyes) on the backs of cars or in advertisements or a bumper sticker for the local Christian school. In the Bay Area, it was rather the opposite — lots of fishes with legs symbolizing a belief in Darwinism or the bumper stickers reflecting the basic black-magic style or irreverence/absurdity of so much of the alternative cultural scene. Along with political stickers mostly on the left end of the spectrum. Back in the NW, the political spectrum, as represented by bumper stickers, is pretty evenly split, although the lefties tend to have more stickers per car.
I may remember this from Orwell's "Homage To Catalonia", or perhaps another account of the workers' uprising in Barcelona in 1936, where, for at least a short time, "the working class was in the saddle", as George put it..... waiting staff in restaurants gave their tips back, and said that they considered it an insult to be given one. They did a job, they expected to be paid for what they did without relying on random or begrudged generosity. I can't remember if waiting staff and restaurant workers were active in the anarchist CNT - barbers were, and many may have had the same attitude towards tipping.
(As a side issue, and a randomly generated memory from my last sentence, my father was a barber - not in Barcelona - as were several of his brothers and in-laws. There's a story of one well-off customer giving an uncle a tip as he left the barber's shop. "This is for you, my man", as he gave him a threepenny bit. As he left, the threepenny bit hit him in the back of the head.)
There's the great scene in Ernst Lubitsch's "Ninontchka" when Greta Garbo is the Soviet emissary visiting the bourgeois West. She is met at the train station, and a railway porter offers to help with her luggage.
Ninotchka: "What do you want?" Porter: "May I have your bags, madame?" N: "Why?" Kopalski: "He is a porter. He wants to carry them." N: "Why? Why should you carry other people's bags?" Porter: "Well, that's my business, madame." N: "That's no business. That's social injustice." Porter: "That depends on the tip."
From the States to revolutionary Barcelona to London to Hollywood's version of Soviet Russia, we do get around! Actually, perhaps it wasn't Hollywood — I don't know; but at least it was Greta Garbo.
Anyway, great points, Norman. I personally think the tipping thing is degrading and liable to lead to abuse. But a steady 15 to 20 percent is my general rule for sit-down service around here — but BE NICE as well and not a demanding asshole! Extra points to you for the nostalgia of the threepenny bit. What I'd give for one of those today!