Having spent several months in North America, I’ve now grown well accustomed to the tipping culture on this side of the pond. In Montréal, it’s the easiest – they’ll make sure you know when you need to tip and sometimes they’ll even be kind enough to let you know how much they were expecting from you. In fact, my tip was once refused by a bartender because apparently it was unacceptably low. I actually find the brutal honesty of Montréal’s servers refreshing – the whole concept of a ‘minimum tip’ is alien to Europeans. When I first arrived in the States, there was far less ‘guidance’ provided by the waiters, bartenders and cleaners, just some dirty looks and confusion.
After several awkward situations and a few discussions regarding the tipping culture in North America, I came to the surprising conclusion that I’m actually quite fond of the whole system. Perhaps less surprisingly, I’m yet to meet a fellow European who is as keen. What do I like about it? Well firstly, I like the fact that, as far I know, the money goes to the servers. I’m aware that some places put all the tips in a communal pot and share it amongst the employees, but still, it pretty much goes straight into people’s pockets. It’s starkly different and so much better, in my opinion, to give money directly to people rather than giving more money to a business. In theory, increased profits for a company should eventually trickle down to its employees, but by avoiding bureaucracy and greed, it’s so much more efficient and equally distributed if it goes straight to the people.
From a more practical perspective, I believe that it improves the standard of service. By the end of my trip I’d come to expect it, but I remember early on noticing how good the service was at restaurants. I’m still pleasantly surprised by waiters at bars, and only paying for your drinks at the end of the night when you leave the pub. By sharp contrast, I found the service from those not customarily tipped to be much worse than what I was used to back home. More than just being unhelpful, at times I found customer service representatives to be rude. I suppose this is a pitfall of the system, and I’ll concede that it suggests money is the sole motivation for servers. This prompts many to claim that the good service is insincere; but I say: so what? Would you rather receive really good service that isn’t entirely heartfelt and genuine, or sincerely rude and unhelpful service from someone who’s just had a long day? I value sincerity a great deal when it comes to friendship, but with a waiter I think I know which option I’d take.
The most convincing criticism of the tipping culture that I’ve heard is that tips are expected. If you think it’s good service, then tip; but when it’s distinctly average service, why is it still expected? Well, I like how the tipping culture distinguishes inanimate objects from human resources. You don’t give a tip towards a product you buy, you pay a tip for a service a real human being has provided for you. In what can often feel like an emotionally detached, fast-paced and ruthless world in which we over-personify and fetishize inanimate objects, I find this recognition of the service provided by a fellow human being somewhat revitalizing. In its absence, servers are merely cogs in a machine. I’ve come to think of it as a sort of ‘humanity’ tax and perhaps it functions as a practical safeguard against Marx’s alienation of labour. Either way, it’s an acknowledgement of humanity, and that’s something I’ll always be a fan of.
The fundamental point for me though, is that regardless of what you may think of the tipping culture, when you’re a visitor in a foreign country or recently immigrated, you should respect the culture that exists in this new place by following its social procedures and etiquette, assuming that it doesn’t do any harm to anyone. Okay, so it burns a slightly bigger hole in your wallet, but I don’t know if that’s a good enough excuse not to partake. Just add it onto the final price in your head when you’re looking at the menu and weighing up your options. Okay, so you have to add on tax as well which is bloody annoying because it means you find yourself adding at least 30% depending on where you are and how generous you feel. Still, that’s the way things work here, and the wages are set based on that system. I’m all for informed consumers and principled consumption, but I think it takes a while to gain the right to protest with your wallet, and frankly I’m quite tired of finding justifications to be stingy.
DISCLAIMER: this piece is by no meas directed at anyone in particular that apparently have differing views and practices regarding tipping