Barrier of a Common Language: Tipping

How did I manage to write so much about shopping in the last post, without mentioning tipping? While tipping (or not tipping) is a cultural aspect rather than a matter of language, I thought it was still worth writing about because tipping has caught me out so many times.

Generally speaking, you don’t tip in The UK. The exceptions are restaurants (but not always) and taxis as well as anything else I’ve inevitably forgotten. A typical tip for decent service is supposed to be 10%, but apparently the average tip is 8%.

In North America, it would probably be faster to list what you don’t tip. I was mildly scolded by my Grandmother-in-law for not tipping my hairdresser when I first moved here. It is customary to tip 15% in a restaurant, although I try hard not to give as much. The end of any kind of dinner date with my Canadian wife ends with us bartering over the tip, usually leaving us both feeling incredulous with one another.

Smiley face = bigger tip

I find keeping a tab in a bar to be a nuisance, especially when you’re in a group of friends. You have to keep track of everything you are buying without necessarily knowing how much it costs, you have to keep the tip in mind and you have the inevitable 10 minutes of confusion at the end of the night where half of your friends drinks have been put on your tab along with some random pint of Guinness that cannot be accounted for.

It has been statistically shown that adding a smiley face to the bill will, on average, lead to a larger tip. Part of me wonders if ‘accidentally‘ making a mistake with the tab, leads to a larger tip. When the bill comes, everyone is suddenly concentrated upon it, you then have an anomaly to figure out, the waitress is given another opportunity to interact with you (and if the bar is Jack Astor’s, she has the opportunity to show you her short skirt again) and she kindly promises to fix it for you. I just wonder if this extra interaction, kindness and the fact that the bill is being brought further into focus, leads to customers leaving bigger tips without realising it and despite slightly worse service.

Or is that just [AM]my British cynicism [BR]me being discerning?

In The UK, you walk to the bar and pay for each drink as you get it, before walking it back to your table. You can do this in North America, but you usually have to sit at the bar and you’re expected to tip with each transaction by pushing some change back away again, or by leaving some of your change in the small plastic tray they pushed towards you with your bill in it. A chain of New York style Italian restaurants in The UK called Frankie And Benny’s, use these plastic trays to offer your change and bill to you if you are just drinking at the bar. It is just done, as a New York style restaurant, for effect, as they aren’t permitted to take tips, but it is very confusing for Transatlantic travellers.

You could argue that not tipping, like in The UK, is a disadvantage because it cannot be used as a motivation for good service. Maybe. But you would be ignoring that North Americans are more willing to pay for service and convenience (and arguably more willing to pay for the belief they’re getting it). As far as wages are concerned, I’ve heard Canadians complain that they wouldn’t ‘do bar work’ in The UK because they wouldn’t get tipped. Of course, bar workers and waitresses are generally paid more in the first place. Not everywhere in The UK or North America provides the same level of tipping and not every establishment pays the same base wage. It’s an open market and, in theory, an open market will find its price. Wages should be roughly equivalent, based on other factors (cost of living, etc..)

The biggest advantage I find to paying tips is catharsis. You can have revenge on bad service and you can reward good service. Does it have much effect on the server? Probably not. If they were particularly bad, they wouldn’t stay in the job for very long. But does it make you feel better? Yeah, probably.

I never fail to screw up with tips. I was out drinking with my friend recently. I had a couple of drinks and some finger food. When we were leaving, I gave a $1 tip, equating to about 5%, without even thinking about it (and perhaps because I was half-cut). I noticed my friend gave about $5, equating to over 20%. I assume he did so in order to make up for what I hadn’t tipped. A little bit embarrassing, but by the time I realised, it was too late. So I just slinked quietly out the door.

I recently lived in a poorer, more industrial area of The UK, where I assume tipping wasn’t at its most generous. I needed to take a taxi home from work one night, and I tipped the guy a couple of quid, really just out of habit of paying a couple of dollars in Canada. The driver was so astonished and thankful that I wasn’t sure if he thought I was a millionaire or if he just wanted to marry me.

I have only once worked in a job where receiving a tip is

a) ever likely to happen and

b) is something I am allowed to take

I worked in a bookies (betting shop) for about 9 months. Being tipped was a very rare, occasional thing. Usually it only happened when someone had a big win (or a good night overall) and, more importantly, if they liked you enough. One lady tipped me twice over a few weeks because I would always make her a coffee and (as they say in retail) engaged with her (spoke with her). Another guy would sometimes tip on a Friday night as a kind of thank you to us for working instead of being out drinking. It didn’t really change the way I work, because I engaged and made drinks for all regulars. As long as people are motivated and a little passionate, they will want to do a good job.

But then, as someone without a tipping cultural background, I would say that.

Finally, a bit of sarcasm for my North American readers. If any of you would like to send me a small tip, you can do so via my Paypal email address: stu (at) teamfishcake (dot) (co) (dot) (uk)

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