This topic has me scratching my head. I still don’t get it and it leads to far too many uncomfortable moments. The many charts and tables that people have produced in their blogs and articles don’t really get to the root of it. Why is it done? And most importantly (and am I alone in thinking this?) can these waitresses/maids/bellboys not just be paid a decent wage? Surely it’s better in Aus/NZ and to a greater extent Japan, where the price is fully inclusive of service.
Here in Britain I am comfortable enough with the rules. I take a taxi, I round up the fare (10% ish). In a restaurant, 10% if the service is good (and to be honest, if it’s not great as well, because I hate making a fuss). Haircut? Add a pound or two. Hotel staff? Rarely. Bar staff? Never. In many cafes, or on a tour bus, there is a small unassuming pot left for tips, and I will put in a pound or two depending on my satisfaction.
With the exception of restaurant staff, who are often outrageously underpaid and in some cases left to make up the minimum wage through tips, a gratuity payment is seen as a thank you for good service, and is normally received in that spirit. I will never forget tipping the taxi driver a pound for a £14 journey in Manchester and hearing his gracious thanks and appreciation. Having just returned from a year in New York it was such a pleasant change and a real welcome home. I can only imagine the reaction of a NY cabbie to the same tip.
Our time in NY was an education in tipping. Around Christmas we took advice from many people about tips for our building staff; the doormen, handymen and mailmen needed something. Given that we had only been there for 3 months, it was felt that we could pay them a lower rate – $30 to $50 each, making a total of $500. Yes, that’s right. We calculated that if everyone followed this etiquette the guys in the building would have collected around $250,000 between them. I heard from a work colleague whose husband was a doorman just how little these men earned and how much they relied on Christmas to boost their pay packet. I learned that for valet parking you need to tip the guy who takes your car AND the guy who brings it back; a complete no-no for a European, who tips for good service, to tip before a service is even delivered. And I won’t forget the waiter in a NY diner who asked what he had done wrong when we only tipped him 15%!
But I do get concerned when I see over-tipping, where people (and it is usually, but not always Americans) give a payment that is grossly out of line with local earnings. I sat on the wall outside Machu Picchu for a while and watched as a young shoe shine boy received $1 for his work from several customers. Then he got a $10 bill from one elderly American man, and a moment later he chased another tourist when he only got a dollar again. I’ve seen this in Africa too, where local staff received tips from a British group equivalent to three of four months’ wages. Understandable, yes. Correct? I don’t feel it is.
Brits are renowned as the worst tippers, and I’m probably a living example of this curse to the world’s service sector. But am I really wrong in believing that a tip should be a sign of gratitude, of satisfaction for a service well delivered? I enjoy tipping freely when I am happy with a service, but do not expect to make up a salary of an employee by default. If it is fully expected that we should leave a particular amount, why not add it to the bill? And if it’s discretionary, then why gripe if my discretion is different from your expectation?
A final word for the taxi driver who collected us in Tasmania. When the meter read $9.30 my natural reaction was to give him $10, but he chirped up “Let’s make it $9”, and with a smile too. He clearly hadn’t worked in New York.