Saturday, 21 November 2009

The Etiquette of Tipping

A pal of mine in the US, Chuck, has just fired this across the ether to me; and I have to confess to a sense of pique after reading this news Couple arrested after refusing to pay tip at Pennsylvania pub.

The irony? America: the only country where gratuities can be gratuitously demanded.

[affects tone of unbridled indignation] The damned cheek of it!  A pox o'their house, Sir! In civilised countries, tipping is a social custom, not a requirement!

One of the things I love about travelling is the presented range of different experiences on offer in the far-flung. And if your levels of expectation are reasonably flexible and not pre-set, then you're more likely than not to survive (if not enjoy) most of these differences.

Having lived, worked and travelled extensively in the US, I can say that you become accustomed to their custom of the all-but-mandatory tip, when paying for most meals (regardless of how light the repast may be) - and mandatory in the sense that waiters and waitresses, there, allegedly get paid so poorly that the only way they can 'make-ends-meet' is to receive tips and gratuities from willing patrons - even if the service is utterly below par, and sometimes so flagrantly unacceptable that you wouldn't consider kennelling your dog there.

So whilst 'tips' are expected, good service can be an utter lottery. And whereas poorly prepared food may be sent back, in the reasonably safe knowledge of a corrective and freshly prepared dish replacing it, serving staff with bad manners, and an attitude towards customers of which the Gestapo might have been envious, is another matter entirely. Alas, these people have yet to understand that customers are not merely an embuggerance - and notwithstanding that the withholding of tips can result in a little more that just an awkward silence, as the above article points out. Nevertheless, poor service is one of my pet-hates, and I have, before now, on being kept waiting for nearly an hour after placing an order, informed the house "Hey! My money's good anywhere!" before walking out the door, followed in hotfoot apologetic persuit by the manager. However, I digress...

But what of elsewhere? With just under 20% of Americans owning a passport (and fewer still having travelled outside the US), what might they expect to see and experience in terms of the habits and tipping etiquette of other nations?

Well, by contrast, here in the UK, the tables are turned and the reverse is true: the working norm here is that we only tip if we feel that the food and service has been worthy of us being generous with our cash - if not, then we don't. Simple as that. There are no laurels for simply taking food from a kitchen where it's prepared and then placing it on a customer's table. After all, it's hardly a Herculean task, is it?

And there is one set of circumstances to which I will always take umbrage: the like-it-or-not "service charge".

As a working rule, any eatery, anywhere, which on the menu stipulates that a mandatory "service charge" is payable, regardless of how small the portion and underwhelming your Lobster Kebab might have been, gets no tip, as they've already shown temerity and fleeced me of it with this additional charge. The staff can then sort out who gets paid what with the owner. Harsh, but fair I feel.

Mind you, the tipping etiquette in Iceland and Norway border on zero-tolerance!

A couple of years ago my wife and I were eating with friends at one of the finest restaurants in Reykjavik, Iceland, The Pearl, where, on getting out my wallet to pay the bill, I was informed by our friends, in a mock-brusque manner, that tipping simply isn't done in Iceland - full stop! Same thing in Norway. Come to think of it, I have garnered one or two feigned-polite ah,-you're-a-foreigner-,aren't-you? looks from waiters in Oslo, when unthinkingly trying to pay a bill there.

Australia's more of a mix between the UK and its adopted habits of the US, as is South Africa - where the preference (of the waiting staff) is that, more often than not, you leave a tip; but you're not obliged to do so. In France, Italy, Belgium and The Netherlands, you just toss some change on the table with your bill, and no one seems to care what percentage you've coughed-up as a gratuity.

But come on!? Getting pinched by the law for refusing to pay a tip after having received woeful service? Talk about a disproportionate response and a gross overreaction!

What next: being sent to Guantánamo Bay for jaywalking?

Actually, if Bush and Cheney were still in power...?


  1. NO tip?  Throw 'em in the slammer.  I'm sorry, but this really gets me, and I'm 100% on the side of the beleaguered waiters.  Wait staff in this country make next to nothing per hour (like $4!! translate that into pounds or euros), and they depend on TIPS.  They also work their butts off. I'd say the old native American proverb applies here...."until you have walked a mile in somebody's moccasins, please don't judge"  (something like that--not as pedantic, but you get the idea).

    There are some demographic and cultural groups in this country who are notorious bad tippers: 
    residents of small towns (did you leave two dollars for the servers at the bowling banquet, dear?)
    the deaf (let's give 25c each for waiter!)
    farmers (ditto)
    bar patrons (round up to the nearest dollar and leave the change for the barkeep)

  2. Cosmic Navel Lint22 November 2009 at 00:39

    Hi M.E.,

    Whilst I doubt any one might begrudge tipping for genuinely good servicee, I think the practice/expectation of handing over a tip, regardless, is one which is uniquely American and an assumption too far - hence it being a custom, and not a requirement, in just about every other Western country - although that perhaps says more about how little the the US values and pays its waiting staff, than it says about the patrons who frequent their eateries.

  3. Cosmic Navel Lint24 November 2009 at 19:54

    A follow-up to the orginal story here:

    Pa. Prosecutor Wants 'No-Tip' Charges Dropped


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