To tip or not to tip… that is the question.

Tipping wait-staffOk, (deep breath), this is probably going to make some peoples blood boil, purely because of what we’re discussing, but I’d like to make it clear from the start that I am not having a dig at anyone’s culture. This post has arisen out of a dilemma I find myself in, where I have to choose between following a social custom, or sticking to my principles.

Back in the UK, tipping is not particularly prevalent, unless you’re in one of the larger, cosmopolitan cities, or a high-end establishment. I have worked in enough areas of the hospitality/service industry to know that tipping was by no means the “norm”. What was more common was to tell the bar staff or waiter to “have one for yourself”, when ordering drinks, or, after having paid the bill in cash, to say “keep the change”.  Here in North America, there is a kind of tipping etiquette, which applies to bars, restaurants, taxi-drivers, hairdressers, bag-packers, gas station attendants, etc. The general understanding is that when leaving a tip you give 15-20% of the value of your bill, but that varies depending on location. The consensus seems to be that you tip a higher rate in the US.

In my opinion, a tip is a reward or a bonus, for good or above average service, but, more importantly, it is at the customers discretion. It is by no means mandatory or to be expected. It is a reflection of the quality of the job done, not of the customer.

Guidlelines to tipping in the US

How does anyone remember all this stuff?

So, my tipping in Canada has been somewhat erratic, dependent upon if I had change, or rounding up the debit card total. It wasn’t until I went out for drinks with a girlfriend, and I happened to mention as we left the establishment, that I didn’t leave a tip, that the gravity of the issue became clear to me. My friends face said it all!!! She was aghast. We rummaged around in our purses on the steps outside but neither of us had any change. That was the moment I realised this tipping lark was a big deal here.

A few days later I started to do some research. I came across a thread on the British Expats Forum that mentioned tipping and I posted up my view (click on the link and scroll down a bit – you’ll find me).

Why should I tip the bartender for opening and handing me a bottle of beer? That’s his job.

The level of feeling that accompanied the subsequent discussion surprised me. Considering these people are originally from the UK, most of them had completely embraced the “Canadian way” when it came to tipping. What’s more, they had no time for anyone who didn’t toe the line! Anyway, from the questions I asked, certain points kept cropping up… so here are, what I found to be, the main reasons people tip and the issues that arise because of them:

(Please note, from here on any reference to tipping means the expectation that you leave an amount equal to a pre-determined percentage of the bill, as opposed to a random amount left voluntarily, in appreciation of good service.)

To Supplement Low Wages

This seemed to be the strongest reason people gave for validating tipping. Unlike in Europe where we have the living wage, or the UK’s National Minimum wage, and service staff are paid an acceptable amount, in Ontario, the minimum wage varies according to a person’s occupation, and “Liquor Servers” have the minimum Minimum Wage, being paid less than students. It’s my understanding that, in Quebec and the US, wait staff are paid even less, because the government has factored in their tips already and taxes them accordingly, so without tips, they will not make a minimum wage. Many service industry workers also don’t have health cover provided by their employers as people in other fields of work may do.
People on the forum said they tipped to enable someone to afford to go to college, pay rent or buy groceries. The understanding I had was that they felt they were being a good citizen through doing this. One person mentioned they were “not comfortable” with “expecting the workers in the restaurant to provide you with good food and and enjoyable experience on minimum wage”.

Wouldn’t it be better if servers got a decent wage no matter how busy the restaurant was?

This is purely my opinion, but I can’t understand why the customer is expected to rectify, what seems to me, a legislative issue. People have clearly identified a problem with the way minimum wages are calculated and taxed so why allow the government to do this? Isn’t this what democracy is supposed to be about? Where is the justice in taxing low-wage earners on money they are not even guaranteed to get? And where does the employers duty to pay a decent wage factor in all of this? If they are too concerned about their own profit to pay their staff properly, why does the onus shift to the customer, who is already paying for the pleasure of eating out. Despite identifying the problem, the customer appears to have been “suckered” into fixing it, thus removing any pressure on the government to do something about it. And the beauty of it is, the customers are self policing, because whenever anyone doesn’t leave a tip they are made to feel bad, as you can see from the next reason given by people for tipping…

Social Custom, “This Is How We Do It Here”

Tipping is a social norm here, hence the “rules” governing it: when to tip, who to tip and how much to tip. Somewhere along the way, a social custom has become a social norm, enforced by society through pressure and guilt. Not tipping is widely scorned and derided, and the “cheapskate” is felt to be deserving of having their order violated. How has this attitude become acceptable? One reason I was given, for tipping, on the Forum was, ” that’s how it’s done in North America.” The funny thing is, waiters dread an evening when there are a lot of “foreign” customers, because they know their tip total will be low. Ergo, tipping is a largely American phenomenon that everyone else is expected to be aware of and adhere to. Given the level of complexity it’s been taken to, this was always going to result in tricky social situations – from what I have read on the various forums, many Americans are themselves, unsure of what is considered “correct” tipping etiquette.

Should good service depend upon gaining a financial reward?

I can understand “when in Rome…” but where do you draw the line? I am not a tourist. I live here, and if I want what I perceive to be a social injustice (poor wages) legislatively resolved, I need to make a stand, to put pressure on the government. I also have to be true to my principles, I would hate for my kids to grow up thinking society owes them a living. Furthermore, something is wrong when people can expect to be paid for work that is poor, under the presumed “norm” that good work is the exception and not the rule, as happens when people feel a tip is an entitlement not a bonus. Under this system people still tip even if they have received bad service. Not every social norm should be accepted by the masses. It was once considered normal to lock up those with mental illness, or to enslave African-Americans, and those who didn’t support it were ostracised.

The social pressure to tip, amounts to blackmail on the part of the server, “Leave a tip or I will ruin your order next time”, or bribery on the part of the patron, “If I give you a tip you must give me good service”. As if a tip would guarantee this! Some say when you tip you are fulfilling a “Social Contract”. Who would get into a contract with someone who thinks nothing of spitting in a customers food? That’s not a contract, that’s demanding money with menaces. If this occurred in the medical or legal profession, the emergency services or in government (as it does in some other countries, see baksheesh) it would be viewed as corrupt.

TippingI have nothing against leaving a tip – what I object to is having the choice in the matter taken away from me.  To me, tipping should reflect a job well done. Some people feel that the pressure to tip has made bad service and a poor work ethic the new expected “norm”. It gives others who do a good job, without expectations, a bad name and lumps them in among those that couldn’t care less.

Social Discrimination

Although this wasn’t given as a reason for tipping, I believe it occurs as a result of it. Tipping is divisive and highlights the differences between the Haves and Have Nots. It creates a situation where only those who can afford to tip can dine out, and those who can afford to tip more will have a better experience. A customer is made to feel uncomfortable and awkward if they do not do what is expected. It also demeans those doing their job, by making them seem needful of our pity and financial help. Reading through people’s comments on BillShrink‘s History of Tipping, was an eye opener. The majority of comments were from Americans and according to people in the service industry, customers are demanding about room temperature, music volume, refills of drinks and bread rolls, where they are seated, and about a million other things! They expect their entire dining experience to be catered to their individual needs and desires, So, for putting up with this attitude, staff feel they are deserving of a tip. But difficult and demanding customers can be found in any line of work and they don’t come with compensation.

Tipping encourages a judgemental attitude.

Anyway, as I read further I couldn’t escape this theme that people were used to having their every beck and call attended to, I may have misunderstood, but it still seems usual in some parts of America for someone to fill your tank and clean your windscreen at the petrol station (you tip them less if you have to ask for it), or pack your bags at the grocery store (staff offer in UK supermarkets but it is a free service and began as a way for one chain of stores to get ahead of the competition). Many people think servers are beneath them and do not treat them with respect. Perhaps the reason tipping has become so entrenched is because of attitude. “The Customer Is Always Right” has become a well-known phrase. The idea that as long as you are handing money over, you can be demanding and rude with no respect for the feelings of others, has led, in turn, to the idea that “They can have what they want but we’ll make them pay for it”. Is tipping a way of temporarily securing a servant? Is it a throwback to the days of servants and slavery? I always thought of wait-staff, bar-staff etc. as people paid to do a job for their employer, not hired to be at my personal disposal. Am I missing something here?

Isn’t tipping just “flashing the cash” to get what you want? In some circles that would be considered crass and elitist behaviour.

Leaving a tipI’d welcome some feedback on the benefits of tipping because I can’t see any positives – why is it a good thing? Perhaps my attitude and background are clouding the issue for me. I’m still deciding where I stand. I know I don’t believe people are entitled to an extra reward for doing what they are paid to do. And I definitely don’t believe in tipping someone who did a poor job, whether or not it is a social custom. I also wouldn’t want any tip I do give to be taxed by the government or taken by the management. And I don’t want to be forced to leave a gratuity – it should be at my discretion, for services rendered. I’m trying to appreciate cultural differences here, but it just doesn’t feel right…

9 Comments

  1. Tipping really IS a thorny issue, and failure to tip properly really is a huge taboo in Canada and the US. HOWEVER, I’m not a mandatory tipper. And I say this as a Canadian and a former service industry employee.

    To help fund my university, I worked as a server in fine dining restaurants in Canada and as a server in a bar in France (where tipping was not typical). I made vastly more money in my Canadian job – earning minimum wage plus tips (usually totaling over $100 per night), and I always felt that somehow the money was kind of undeserved. I mean, I was just doing my job. While I appreciated a tip for going out of my way to help someone or give them an extra special evening, I didn’t think that it was fair that I made more money (on average) than a supervisor or then a cook who actually made the meal.
    Also, I don’t think that I worked any harder or better in my high tipping service job Canada than in Europe where I might have earned 5 euro a night. I enjoyed serving, I enjoyed selling, and I enjoyed the buzz of getting through a smoking busy night, regardless of how much money I made.

    I don’t buy the argument that service jobs absolutely require tips to substitute a poor wage. When I was in service, I made minimum wage, or a bit above – that is more true in the US where servers might earn a couple of bucks an hour.

    I do really resent having to tip because it’s expected, particularly when service is sub-par.

    Now, I usually conform to social pressure and tip 15%, but grudgingly. And if service is bad, I will buck convention and leave nothing.

    Reply
    • Hi Erica, fancy meeting you here! You are lucky – from what I hear tipping is practically non-existent in Japan. For me, this issue is going to be whether I have the minerals to stand by my beliefs or cave under social pressure…. Thanks for sharing your experience. It seems many people resent it, not because they’re parsimonious (LOVE that word!) but because it doesn’t feel right. If I knew I was gonna die next week would I get my knickers in a twist about tipping? Naahhhh! Life’s too short to live it by other peoples standards…

      Reply
  2. Oh you are a brave one! Tipping is right up there with politics, religion and taxes: you’ll get lots of different opinions, step on lots of toes and never get full agreement.

    As an American who worked in the hospitality industry as both a bartender and restaurant waitress, I can only reiterate that various countries’ economic systems of wages, taxation, etc. are different. Different isn’t better or worse, right or wrong. Just different. You’re trying to compare apples to oranges, trying to overlay what you’re used to onto different places. Just won’t work. Tipping differs around the world, so expecting various countries’ hospitality economies to conform isn’t going to happen. You can call it a legislative problem all you want, but in the end, if you raise wages (which I actually don’t mind supporting), you and I will end up paying more as the cost is passed on to the customer in the form of higher prices. That’s what ends up happening in countries that pay a significantly higher wage (I’m talking % relative to other industries), such as in Europe and elsewhere in the world.

    Taxes make it even more complicated, because in some countries, such as the US, there is a higher local/state level of taxation on restaurant dining and bar visits because it is seen as discretionary spending as opposed to mandatory (e.g., for food in grocery stores). That’s why the US taxes alcohol, tobacco and eating out at a higher level. I pay higher prices AND taxes here in Europe for less product choice at the supermarket for ‘non-discretionary’ food; the same is true at restaurants. Wherever I live or travel, I read up on tipping guidelines (which is all they really are) and act accordingly out of respect for the local customs. But the kicker is that as an American I’m expected to tip higher because everyone ‘knows’ Americans tip more!

    I personally miss the level of customer service found in the US and Canada; getting paid a higher (relative) hospitality wage in other countries hasn’t often translated into better service. Instead, you have to make the best of it because you’ve lost aspect of adjusting tipping as a reflection of service. I’ve had great service around the world, and I’ve had mediocre or poor service as well. When I go into a restaurant, I’m assuming it will be a good experience, and I’m rarely disappointed.

    The beauty of tipping (keeping in mind the economies of the country’s hospitality system) is that when the service meets or exceeds those expectations, if the experience has been a good one, you can tip on the higher end. If the service isn’t as good, is mediocre, distracted or downright poor, you can adjust the tip accordingly. In the end, you get to decide whether to tip and how much. That’s cool.

    Reply
    • Hi Linda, “a brave one”? Hmmmm, not so sure about that, more confused than anything. But then, the more I asked people about tipping, I found I’m not the only one! Thanks for your comment and your insight, it’s nice to get a different perspective the practice of tipping. I personally wouldn’t mind if raising wait-staff wages translated into a 15% increase in the price of a meal. If the food is good I will pay. My objection lies with being coerced into paying someone to be civil to me. I expect a baseline of civility from everyone I interact with – I don’t expect to have to pay for it. I understand what you say about respecting local customs, but I will still assess my behaviour and not follow blindly – not all local customs will align comfortably with my principles, and I would always question a local custom that seeks to part me from my hard-earned cash!!!
      Like the US, the UK heavily taxes things which it believes are “not good for us” like tobacco and alcohol and they are always threatening to bring in a “Fat Tax” on unhealthy foods, so we are already paying top dollar to enjoy ourselves a little, without slapping a tip on top of that! Btw, do you really find you have less product choice in the supermarket in Europe, because we have noticed a much smaller range of goods within a category here in Canada than in the UK. Back home there were countless different types of tomatoes, breads, lettuces, cheeses to choose from. Here it is very limited :-(
      I haven’t eaten out regularly here but on the occasions when we have been to a restaurant, I can’t say I have noticed any difference in the level of service – I think that’s more down to peoples characteristics, whether they are bored in their job, conscientious, happy in their work etc. I think tipping just gives you the illusion that you have some control over a situation – your revenge for a bad experience or reward for a good one. The thing is, I don’t need a system to be in place if I feel someone deserves a reward, I will just quietly reward them.

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  3. I’m afraid I very rarely tip. Unless I’m in a restaurant where the service and food has been exceptional, I keep my money in my purse and expect the person who served me to be paid by the establishment they work for. At the end of the day, the customer is paying their wages anyway and tipping is just like charging an extra donation on top of your bill. I’m not against it, each to their own in my opinion, but when I request a service I pay for, I expect it to be first class no matter what.

    CJ xx

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    • I have to agree with you CJ, when you’re paying for an experience you have expectations and they don’t include having to pay twice!

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  4. Well, you know me. I’ve lived in the UK (high taxes, tip now and again), Canada (obligatory tipping), and now Australia (next to no tipping). In my gut, what do I prefer? Choice based on good service. End of story. I don’t give a rats if the server is low paid or high paid. I’ll tip if it warrants it. No more, no less. Canada stressed me out (tipping the taxi driver? come on!) but I find a different kind of stress here (please someone tip the poor waiter, he’s done such a good job… but, no, the tipping here is next to non-existent). Go figure… [with that, he skulks off without wanting to get drawn into this whole debate ;) ]

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  5. I live in south west France. Only tourists seem to tip here. Once out of the UK Brits seem to think they should! A rule I heard some time ago is that if the owner of the establishment serves you then no tip but if a waiter/waitress does then you can. Personally I would only tip if I got exceptional service. The best service I ever received was in the States – where service is the best. I was in St. Louis. The waiter was an aspiring actor/singer. He “sang” the menu to us and it was fantastic. He was gorgeous with a dazzling smile and yes, he received a huge tip and a big kiss on our departure. Now that’s a dining experience you don’t come across every day.

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    • Wow! Well worth the tip! Nice to know that the spirit of good service IS still alive.

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