Comparative tipping

According to Kate Fox in Watching the English, you don’t tip bartenders in England (and by extension in Britain), you buy them a drink. Which I always thought was code, in the U.S. at least, for I’ll leave you the price of a drink and you decide whether to drink it or put the money in your pocket. Admittedly, I never spent enough time in American bars to know the rules, so no one should take my word for that. But in Britain it really does mean I’ll buy you a drink. Which the bartender will eventually drink, nodding his or her thanks to you.

Of so Fox says, and I’m sure she’s right. She sees this as marking a sort of official class equality between bartender and customer, regardless of what the class divisions (and oh, will both sides ever be aware of them) are.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: pampas grass, which is (I think) called something else here. Don't you love it when I'm informative?

Screamingly irrelevant photo: pampas grass (and the tip of Wild Thing’s lens). I think it’s called something else here. Don’t you love it when I’m informative?

(I haven’t given you a link to Fox’s book this time, although I have before. I’d link back to the embedded link but I can’t remember which post it was in and, hey people, I only get just so much time on this planet. Besides, you know how to find a book, right?)

But back to our topic: In the only pub where I spend much time—and that only because I like the singers night—the bartenders are also the wait staff, and they do get tipped for serving meals, so it takes a finer eye than mine to figure out the distinction. But it’s true that people don’t tip at the bar.

Except me. For a long time I behaved myself and didn’t tip when I bought a drink, but I’ve worked for tips, as both a cab driver and a waitress, and after a while I just couldn’t help myself. I started tipping. Sometimes at first I had to explain myself—one or another of the bartenders would think I’d miscounted my money and return the extra.

“I’m American,” I found myself telling one of them. “I tip. I can’t help it.”

I also remember saying, “I’m awkward but I mean well” since I hadn’t managed to make it clear that I was tipping—although in the U.S. I expect it would have been more than clear enough.

But no one seems insulted. The tip goes into the jar with the tips from the tables and my behavior goes into the Weird American category.

This comes up because Dan Antion commented that before he visited the U.K. he read that the British don’t tip, so he didn’t.

Sorry Dan, but they do. Not as much as Americans—or at least not as much as New Yorkers and Californians. Midwesterners are more, um, cautious with their tips. Or stingy, if you like. I haven’t done a full survey of the two coasts or of the south and west, so I won’t go out on a limb about how they tip. But the British? They tip wait staff in restaurants and (mostly) in pubs. Either many or most cafes have tip jars. And if they don’t? Wild Thing and I leave the tip on the table.

As far as I can tell, people tip cab drivers. We sure as hell do. And if something gets delivered that’s a pain in the neck for the delivery person, we tip—which often involves offering the money for a drink after work, which may or may not turn into a drink but who cares?

Around the holidays, some people we know leave money for the folks who pick up the trash and recycling and who deliver the mail—although the last one is, I think, never supposed to happen and the post office is probably coming to arrest me for even writing about it, never mind doing it. (I never said I did it, Your Honor, I only implied it. And I could’ve been lying.) Anyway, you can call those tips or Christmas presents or whatever you like. They happen, although not universally.

I’ve been reading, both online and in the papers, about campaigns to stop restaurant chains from stealing their employees’ tips. Yeah, some do that, both in Britain and in the U.S., especially if the customer puts the tip on a credit card with the rest of the bill, but sometimes even when the tip’s in cash—or in some cases if there’s no tip at all, because the restaurant acts as if there was one and charges the waitron what it figures he or she must have gotten. And it’s all okay, because if a businessman can’t steal from people with less power and money than him, how’s he supposed to make an honest buck?

Social media’s been effective at shaming the shit out of some chains that did this, but I expect others are still at it.

So whatever country you live in, tip, and do it in cash. And follow Wild Thing’s dictum: Nobody ever went to hell of overtipping.

59 thoughts on “Comparative tipping

  1. I’ve always tipped, no matter what shore I’m on. I just think the U.S. has more “rules” about it such as percentages. It definitely said, “…and one for yourself” in pubs before as a means of tipping but I’ve not said that in a while or heard anyone else do so either. In more recent years I’ve just left a tip on the bar. I haven’t been to a U.S. bar to be capable of any comparative observations. In a restaurant, I always make a point to tell a waiter if he or she has provided great service in addition to leaving a decent tip. I think that verbal feedback is important. It also balances out my constructive criticism when things don’t go well. Even then, however, I leave a derisory tip so they can know it is related to my measure of their job rather than me being a mean non-tipper.

    On this subject, one thing I’ve encountered, thankfully rarely but on both shores, is restaurants adding a tip to the bill before presenting it. Usually a pretty steep percentage. Once on Rhode Island we were given a bill with a 25% gratuity added to it when we had received pretty shoddy service. I do think the spirit of the tip should be that it is determined by the recipient of the service rather than the one ostensibly providing that service.

    Incidentally I was always one to give a gift or tip to people like posties and bin men when we lived in Britain but I was told by several people that that’s just not done here in the U.S. Your post appears to confirm that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In the U.S., we always tipped the letter carrier and the garbage and recycling guys. And in New York? If you don’t tip at Christmas, you may find that your garbage doesn’t get picked up because it’s gone afoul of some obscure regulation.

      When restaurants add service charges, I’m very suspicious–they don’t often reach the wait staff.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh good. I’m glad I’m not potentially freaking out my mail man when I leave him an envelope at the holidays.

        Yes, the restaurants absorbing the tip is something we do our best to undermine. Underpaying staff and then also pinching their tips is just appalling.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I was about to say that you can’t possibly lower to tone too far, but never mind, I don’t want to post you a challenge. I’ve heard that about pampas grass. If anyone thinks this one is an invitation, they’ll have a hell of a time figuring out which house they’re invited to because it’s on the corner of nowhere and no place else and not attached to any house.

      I didn’t look in the long grass to see what was going on, but it wasn’t waving in any unusual way.


  2. Fortunately, for most of my visit, I was in the care of an English friend who would tell me what was appropriate. He also helped me count the change I had collected, since some of that is actually worth something. Here, as you may remember, the dollar coin never took off. I was surprised about the hotel housekeeper. I did leave a tip for her/him but it remained on the dresser (on a note saying “thanks”) for three nights. I’m assuming she/he took it after I checked out. Thanks for the mention. If I come back to England, I’ll study harder.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I remain mortified at an Australian colleague when we were staying in Manhattan. At the Roosevelt on Madison Ave, no less. Australians don’t tip unless they are culturally sensitive enough to enquire and then to follow this advice. The other colleagues in the party, better travelled and much nicer people, had no aversion to tipping even though it was contrary to the employer’s policy (we were there for a conference, and therefore on that account). Anyhow, this long preamble is to tell you that one of the waiters took serious umbrage at “Bruce’s” non-tipping policy, had a tantrum of note, much to our embarrassment and then gave us all a wide berth for the rest of the time we were there.

    I hosted many Australian academics in South Africa for that client. Each time I had to advise about the tipping, unless the individual was not a native Australian; some were very generous and others as mean as aforementioned “Bruce”. In Australia you don’t tip, I’m told, unless the service is EXCEPTIONAL (yes, I know….), the price is supposed to cover it all.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I like the fact that you tip the delivery person – which raises the question, how much do you tip a piano mover?

    The thing I could never understand is the tip jar at the coffee chain store. Excuse me but the auto-parts store doesn’t have a tip jar, neither does the hardware store – and those people give you great service. Hell, hardware store people get paid next to nothing but know everything about everything and will walk all over the store to make sure you get just the right thing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Coffee shops don’t pay well. Tip. You’re probably right about what hardware stores pay and if they had a tip jar there I’d toss money in. I’ve worked for tips. I’d have to. But it’s coming out of a different tradition and the fact that maybe they should have an extra source of income doesn’t mean we should stop tipping in coffee shops.

      On the other hand, we could all start pressing the food industry to pay decently so we could all stop tipping. I’d get behind that. And the hardware stores. And a few other industries we could all list.

      I seem to remember something about unions. Where are they these days?? We need them.

      I’ve never had a piano delivered and I don’t know how much I’d tip, but it would have to be more than a couple of bucks. I remember seeing one lifted (with a crane) into a New York apartment via a window, which had been taken out. That called not just for tipping but for worship.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I doubt if retail can be effectively organized. The shops can’t compete against Amazon while paying a decent wage – and it is too easy to automate coffee and fast-food, plus the labor segment is too mobile.

        I look at my daughter’s union, the pipe-fitters… a very successful union. They do a great job of membership service. They even built their own clinics. The one thing they are very cautious about – is stepping on their member’s politics.

        Not so my old union.

        I remember a union meeting for state employees where the leadership was talking about a campaign to force the state investment board (our pension fund) to divest away from fossil fuels.

        A guy behind me, called out, “Well, F^&k me, I just paid 50K for a Silverado. (pickup truck). That got a belly laugh from half the room and a look of bewilderment from the podium.

        That would not happen in a trade union hall.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Well, the guy with the Silverado did know how to get right to the heart of the matter. Even if I want to push his truck over a cliff, I’ve got to admire his gift with words.

          Organizing retail’s a challenge, I agree. And I’m understating it. But so many of the new jobs are like that–precarious, underpaid, threatened with automation. I can’t help thinking that it needs to be tried anyway, because people are getting trapped in them, and desperate.

          Maybe we should start by organizing Amamzon. And collecting tax from them.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I just spotted this in the news.

            “There’s no more tipping at Joe’s Crab Shack, the first national full-service chain restaurant to test a no-tipping policy, Consumerist reports. In a conference call last week, Ray Blanchette, CEO of parent company Ignite Restaurant Group, told investors that 18 of its 131 units are trying out the no-tipping policy that began in August, making up for lost tips by upping servers’ starting minimum wage to $14 an hour from $2.13 (exact pay depends on work) “

            Liked by 1 person

            • Sounds like a great idea. I’d want to see the fine print on that “exact pay depends on” clause before I signed up, but it does sound good. And it reminds me that a lot of restaurants require side work–set up of various sorts–paid at the usual low hourly rate. And you don’t get to say no.

              Liked by 1 person

  5. In Germany they tell the waiter/bartender how much they want back instead of leaving it on the table. This was always too much mental math for me, especially as I tried to convert to Euros in my head with different tips rates etc. I remember it being the most stressful thing about my vacation there.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ah, the mysteries of tipping… I’ve taken to using the “I’m American. I tip. I can’t help myself.” line. A lot. After decades in the Dark Side trenches (HR), I can honestly say that nobody EVER thinks they don’t deserve the money they are paid/bonused/tipped. At least, nobody has ever tried to return it.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I worked for 7 years at a restaurant that did not give waitstaff the tips. That’s right. You heard me. In America. They claimed it was printed on the menu, and they paid well above minimum wage (at the time, in the mid 90’s my hourly wage was $9.) But every table tipped, and we were not supposed to return the money and inform them of their error. It just went into the till. I don’t know why I kept working there. It wasn’t for the atmosphere, which was tense and busy. Probably because they allowed me to work during vacations in college.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Nine bucks an hour? For waitstaff? In America? In the 90’s?

      I remember getting a waitressing gig in that timeframe, and thinking I’d scored a generous employer when my hourly was $2.25. (the ‘federal minimum’ at the time was $2.01 for tipped employees)

      It was incredibly foolish of them, though, to ’till the additional tip money instead of informing their customers of their policy. The accountant in me wonders how they covered up the discrepancies to the IRS. All our governments (not just in the US) are rather obtuse about collecting every single red cent (and then some) in their ‘justified’ taxes.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Nice and useful post. Sometimes it can feel awkward, so just saying it is a great idea! “I tip, I can’t help it” is exactly how I feel about it, I think it was drilled into me during part of my childhood in NYC (obviously, my mother or grandmother were doing it, not me), or from all my visits to the USA and the post-restaurant meal pow-wows about the “right” amount to tip. Serves me right for grumbling about the 15% mind-bending calculations – last summer I saw a number of places “suggesting” 20% “for superior service”..(simpler calculations! ).I like the jar thing you describe in the pubs in the UK. … Here in Italy they tell you not to leave a tip on the table, chances are someone else could pick it up :(

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Have you heard that they’re trying to raise minimum wage to $15 @hr for wait staff. LOTS of kerfuffles over that, from restaurants advising customers not to tip. I’ve even heard the extreme of restaurants threatening to shut down. It’s all pretty insane. Who tips at a McDonalds and yet, part of their ridiculously low wages are based on the concept that they’re receiving tips. It’s all pretty absurd. I know how hard waiting on folks can be from waitress jobs I had when I was in college.

    Raising minimum wage to a living wage is the whole point. Relying on tips might be feasible for those in fancy restaurants with large tabs, that are busy enough, but your average diner really doesn’t bring in all that much from tips.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I worked in a diner for a while. The tips were pretty grim.

      Back in the day, the idea was that you might work at fast food place for a year or three while you were in school, then you moved on to a real job with real pay. These days, the real jobs with real pay are gone for whole categories of people and they get stuck in the fast food jobs, trying to raise families on those wages. Bring on the living wage, I say.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I do tip, but I don’t like the US system of a mandatory 20% tip. (At least that’s how I understood it to work). I mean, that’s a lot. But then again, US wait staff often work very hard for their tips and the service is much, much better than elsewhere in my opinion.

    I usually leave half that here in Spain where people don’t tend to tip. Unless it’s just a coffee or a drink, then I might not tip either. In Germany, we just round up, so if the bill is €27.30, then you (the customer) say “€30” when you hand over the money/card. Not much “math” involved ;-)

    Liked by 1 person

      • Actually, there was a discussion on the radio on this topic yesterday. A Spanish waiter working in London said that the worst tippers were his compatriots, Italians and assorted Asian tourists. The point that was also made was that shop assistants etc were just as shittily paid, but had no hope of ever getting a tip off anyone. Yup, the service sector :(

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Where to start?

    Restaurant economics are a quagmire. Nobody can expect to make a lot of money unless you are Gordon Ramsey. There is a ton of overhead involved. In your first year of operating a restaurant in the US, labor alone takes up 30% of your costs, and that is based on the lower salaries and tipping model. (I considered the idea of opening up a restaurant at one time.) Food is 40%, and I haven’t even gotten into rent and other expenses.

    It makes it extra tough because we really do not charge a lot for meals over here. So when people balk at our tipping rates, what they don’t realize is that it is 20% for a lower cost meal than what they normally would be buying somewhere in Europe. Many times, the diners would still be saving money with a decent tip on top.

    Cheaper meals is something that the American public expects too, so to get them to pay more for food to pay for the higher salaries will be quite a switch in thinking. In fact, the tip is basically paying the commission for the sales job the waitstaff provides on the floor. So, if we go to a flat salary, we have to find an incentive plan for the waitstaff to provide good customer service.

    Although, there will be some people hurt by this. I am thinking of people like some women I went to college with. They were single moms who had jobs at a steakhouse (higher cost meals) while juggling their coursework. They made good money off of their tips, had health insurance through the school, and had the flexibility to take the courses they needed. So earning money off of tips is not necessarily a recipe for disaster either.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Once a crazy system’s in place, it’s hard to change it, and tipping is, basically, very strange. As several people pointed out, why not tip in other service areas as well? In fast food, paying a living wage might (or might not–I can’t predict) mean prices went up, but at the moment it’s the employees subsidizing the business model.


      • It’s not as crazy as you think. Put it into a business perspective. Starting a restaurant is one of the riskiest things you can do business-wise. Metric-tons of overhead. The owners are usually not even paying themselves in the beginning. In say, a clothing store, you don’t have to worry about your inventory rotting, and the consequences aren’t as greater if you are short-staffed for a day. (Disgruntled customers from slow service. Bad word of mouth.) Meanwhile, in a restaurant, you are competing with fast-food, chain restaurants, and other independents, and you have to keep your prices competitive too. You have a 59% of failure in the first 3 years, according to the latest studies.

        The tipping model is the best way to make sure your employees get a wage, and that’s why it doesn’t happen in other service areas.

        And tipping can allow you to make more money than the flat wage. Some people are natural born salespeople and can get customers to shell out for drinks and desserts. Their tips are their reward for doing their job extra well.

        Now, the fast food model is a completely different system and run by either company stores or franchisees. The increase of their wages to $15/hr is being heavily debated right now over here, especially while many people want others to have a living wage, $15/hr is also the same salary as a paramedic or a private in the US Army. It’s making us question just how much people’s work is really worth and forcing us to confront issues we really should have been confronting a long time ago.

        We are a nation founded by businessmen, and our system is here to foster business, for good and for ill. I will be the first to say that we need to fix quite a few things, but tipping does have a place.

        Liked by 1 person

        • You raise a lot of points that are well worth serious thought, but with apologies I’m not even going to try to do them justice. I’m exhausted and I’m going to give into that and let it go with a thanks for writing. That’s a lousy excuse for a reply but all I’m up to just now.

          Liked by 1 person

  12. I don’t tip (I am in the UK) unless I am given amazing service. I use to work in a bar and did get drinks given to me. But then I had to keep my tongue when they got drunk, plus I am damn good. I am not sure how it works in the US, but we have minimum wage here and if you tip the waiter or waitresses why wouldn’t you tip the retail staff who are on the same money and have to deal with the same sort of thing especially round Christmas

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I do tip, especially in restaurants. What I dislike is that some establishments operate a “Service Charge” rather than a tipping policy. Tipping is voluntary as is paying a “Service Charge”, however many people are to embarrassed to refuse to pay a “Service Charge” (even when the service is terrible, while others don’t appear to understand you can (perfectly legitimately) refuse to pay a service charge. Yet others still leave a tip even after having paid the “Service Charge”! Kevin

    Liked by 1 person

      • I am sure you are right, the Service Charge doesn’t always reach those doing the serving. Tipping is a peculiar practice. Being blind I get help around the supermarket by members of staff. They are, on the whole extremely helpful. However while I will tip a taxi driver for going the extra mile (pun intended)! I wouldn’t tip a member of staff in a supermarket as it would feel wrong and no doubt goes against company policy! Sometimes there appears to be no rhyme or reason behind activities such as tipping. Kevin

        Liked by 1 person

  14. My daughter just went to LA on a trip. I had to explain about porters and cabdrivers and maids and all the subtleties of tipping. It basically boiled down to tipping twice as much in California as you do in Michigan.

    Liked by 1 person

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