Tipping is tacky…

It really is. That being said, I understand tipping is the way it is in the United States. If you work in the service industry in America, tipping can make or break you. Unfortunately, in the United States, it has become customary for customers to fortify low wages. And… just as unfortunately, many Americans assume tipping is customary everywhere and try to force that practice on other cultures.

Today’s blog post is inspired by a comment I read on a Facebook page I follow called Bitchy Waiter. I follow that page because I was once myself a waitress in the United States. Although I haven’t worked as a waitress since 2002, I still occasionally have nightmares about waiting tables. Believe me, I am very sympathetic to wait staff, especially in the United States. I always tip generously when I’m home. However, while tips are often appreciated in other countries, they aren’t always necessary. Sometimes they are even offensive.

This was a post I read today on Bitchy Waiter…

A little voice inside my head told me I shouldn’t read the comments. Unfortunately, I ignored it…

Person after person wrote something along the lines of “20%! Same as I do in America!” or “No idea!” One person even wrote “A deodorant stick.” I usually don’t comment on this kind of stuff because it’s generally a waste of time. But today, I felt like I had to leave a comment for one person who seemed especially hellbent on being an “ugly American”. Have a look.

The original poster insists that he should tip 20% because “he’s a good tipper” and not tipping at least 20% would be “insulting”…

While many servers in European countries appreciate tips, tipping is not as important in Europe as it is in America. Many servers in Europe actually go to school to learn how to wait tables. It’s a real profession… which isn’t to say that waiting tables isn’t a profession in the United States, as much as it is to remind people that many Europeans take pride in hospitality. They are also paid a living wage.

As most Americans know, while there are many professional servers in the United States, it’s not something that everybody goes to school to learn how to do. It’s also not necessarily a job that most people grow up wanting to do, even if there are some folks who get into the profession and stay in it their whole lives.

Unfortunately, many people in the United States look down on servers, though I can personally attest to how difficult the job is. Many people think servers are “unskilled”. Because so many places in the States don’t even pay their servers as little as minimum wage, servers in the States are forced to rely on tips to make money. But that is NOT the case everywhere and Americans should not assume that it is.

I have been to Italy several times. I’m now at a point at which I couldn’t tell you exactly how many times I’ve visited. I have learned that tipping in restaurants is NOT a thing in Italy, although it is becoming more common thanks to Americans who insist on engaging in the practice. In Italy, you are typically charged a servizio, which is the service charge. You may also pay the coperto, which is the cover charge. That’s for the tablecloth, silverware, etc. If you received good service and you want to round up the bill, fine. But even then, in Italy, you’d typically pay a cashier and not your server. So even if you wanted to tip, it would be awkward. It’s not common to leave money on the table in Europe and, if you do, staffers might think you left it there accidentally. Or worse, they might think you are pitying them.

I guess what set me off about the comments above is that the original poster was concerned about not insulting servers in Italy, so he’s gonna tip the way he would in his country. However, in his bid not to feel like he’s being insulting, he’s forgotten that he doesn’t get to determine whether or not he’s coming across as insulting. Just like beauty, rude behavior is in the eye of the beholder. You don’t get to determine whether or not your behavior is offensive to someone else. Sadly, I think a lot of Americans have no clue that our culture is not the end all be all. It’s not the benchmark of “normal” for the whole world. In fact, many Europeans seem to think American culture is actually pretty weird. And when an American comes to another country and presumes to foist US customs on the locals, it is insulting, offensive, and potentially very damaging.

Getting back to my title for this post. To be honest, excessive tipping truly is, in my opinion, very tacky. I can remember waiting tables in a nice restaurant, getting paid $2.13 an hour by my employer, but actually making about $12 an hour or more due to tips. Honestly, making money was my focus in those days, as it was for most of my colleagues. We were not really that concerned with seeing that our guests enjoyed their meals and the luxurious experience of dining out as much as we were with getting them in and out of the restaurant so we could make bank. And customers, likewise, use tips as a way to demean or punish the servers.

I remember one evening, a gentleman sat at one of my tables and said, “If you take care of us, we’ll take care of you.”  By the time I ran into this guy, I already knew that if someone was graceless enough to let me know from the get go that he expected me to kiss his ass and was dangling cash in front of me like a person would tease a pet, it was going to be a tough night. And, sure enough, I don’t remember that guy being particularly generous. I do remember he was very demanding, though… and very tacky. He assumed he needed to get me to do my job by promising cash instead of expecting me to do it because I had some pride in my work.

Here’s another example. Bill and I have cruised with SeaDream Yacht Club three times. It’s considered a “luxury” cruiseline. Tipping is “not expected”. Those who choose to offer money to the crew are requested to donate to the crew fund so the money goes to everyone. Although this is the stated policy in SeaDream’s literature, I know for a fact that there are a lot of people who tip anyway. I have seen them on the last day, surreptitiously passing envelopes full of cash to crew members. The tippers probably don’t see anything wrong with this practice; but in my mind, it makes it harder for crew members to pay equal attention to everyone. It’s also not fair to those crew members who don’t have the good fortune to impress a generous passenger with deep pockets.

By contrast, next week, Bill and I will be boarding Hebridean Princess, a luxury vessel owned by Hebridean Island Cruises. Hebridean operates a strict “no tipping” policy. They don’t even have a crew fund that I am aware of. Instead of demanding tips from their guests, Hebridean Island Cruises simply price their voyages high enough that they can properly pay their staff. When passengers get on board, they are truly guests. There is no pressure to spend money because you’ve already spent a mint to get on the ship. And although many people see tips as truly “to insure prompt service”, I have yet to be disappointed by the service on Hebridean Princess. Everyone is uniformly service oriented to each passenger. They do their jobs professionally, and passengers simply enjoy what they’ve paid for ahead of time. Although I can’t find the exact wording of why Hebridean outlaws tipping, I do remember that it was basically because the management considered tipping to be awkward and potentially embarrassing. Frankly, I think they’re correct.

It’s hard to be graceful about tipping, although there are a few tricks (palming a bill and shaking hands is one). Tips are “gratuities”, which means they are gifts given for a job well done. But in the United States, service people expect gratuities regardless. That promotes an attitude of entitlement, which is hardly gracious or hospitable. Therefore, the wait staff focuses on turning tables instead of seeing that their guests enjoy the experience of dining out. If you don’t believe me, visit any Olive Garden or Outback Steakhouse and let me know if you’re allowed to simply enjoy your food without being prompted to either order more or GTFO. No wonder there are so many overweight Americans.

Indeed, on the Facebook post I referenced here asking what one should tip in Italy, one guy wrote this.

Nothing. They tip like shit when they are here. And stay too long. Lol.

You know why the Italians “tip like shit”? Because they are doing what they do in their own country. Tipping isn’t as much of a thing in Europe and they expect that servers in a place like the United States will actually get paid by their employers. And they “stay too long” because dining out is supposed to be a pleasant experience in Europe. You’re out to enjoy yourself and enjoy food, not pay a server a living wage. Contrast that attitude to the United States, where people are sensitive about staying too long in a restaurant because they know servers need to turn their tables.

On that Facebook thread, I read so many comments from Americans, most of whom have probably never been abroad, either complaining about foreigners not tipping well or insisting that they need to tip 20% or more to servers in other countries. You know what? If you are an American server and you expect your foreign customers to know American tipping customs, perhaps you should do the same when you visit another country. Learn a little about what is expected and behave accordingly. Contrary to popular belief, America is not necessarily the greatest place in the whole world. Sometimes, we Americans could learn a little something from other cultures.


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