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…