Long life

To tip or not to tip

First there was an anti-tipping movement in Britain and now the first crack has appeared in the American tipping culture

24 October 2015

9:00 AM

24 October 2015

9:00 AM

As I grow older, I find myself increasingly reluctant to travel, which is why it’s been a few years now since I last visited New York. I like New York, but there are few nastier experiences than going there. The usual horrors associated with modern air travel are bad enough, but the passengers on transatlantic flights tend to be especially uncongenial — harassed mothers with screaming babies, tattooed, pot-bellied men bursting out of their jeans. By the time I reached the check-in desk at Gatwick Airport I had become so alarmed at the thought that I might be put next to one of the scarily obese women who’d been in front of me in the queue that I paid for an exorbitantly expensive upgrade to a ‘premium’ seat.

Anyway, I survived the journey, and here I am nicely settled, staying with friends near Union Square, where there’s a lively farmers’ market in which you can buy minced bison for your cottage pie. My spirits have revived, and I’m buoyed up by the cheerful, purposeful way in which New Yorkers go about their daily business and their unquenchable belief that they live in the most wonderful and exciting city in the world. It’s cold, but it’s bright and sunny and exhilarating. I’m glad I came.

I went last night for dinner to the Union Square Café, the owner of which has just announced a plan to abolish tipping throughout his chain of upmarket restaurants in the city. This might seem like a good idea, for it’s now considered normal here to tip a waiter 20 per cent of the bill, which is an awful lot — four dollars for every 20 spent — and much more than anyone pays in Britain. But it’s very controversial. Many Americans like to tip. It makes them feel powerful. It establishes a personal relationship between them and the people who serve them. And tipping is generally popular not only with waiters (who have found that tips get bigger if they draw a little smiley face on the front of the bill) but also with restaurateurs, who can pay their waiters less as a result.

On the other hand, there is the niggling worry that tipping is demeaning to its recipients. In Britain there used to be an anti-tipping movement based on this idea, though it’s a long time since I’ve heard anything about it. But I well remember how many years ago, when the movement was at its peak, a Guardian reporter was given the unenviable assignment of spending a day out in London, taking taxis and visiting expensive restaurants, with instructions to give no tips. Instead he handed out little printed cards explaining that tipping was offensive to human dignity and his failure to give a tip was just a sign of his personal respect. The poor journalist wrote an amusing piece, describing how on each occasion he was subjected to the most extravagant and vulgar abuse.

You might have expected that similar concern for the dignity of waiters would be behind this ban on tipping in this land of equal opportunity, but it doesn’t seem to have been. The main reason was apparently the injustice felt by the kitchen staff, who may get paid more than the waiters but end up earning less because they don’t get tipped. Another reason might be to spare customers the trouble and anxiety of deciding how much money to leave as a tip. In a coffee shop where I had breakfast yesterday there were three sums printed at the foot of the bill to show what tips of 10, 15 and 20 per cent would each amount to. One would have had to be feeling rather brave to pay anything less than the 20 per cent.

This first crack in the long-established American tipping culture has been heralded in the media as deeply significant, but it certainly won’t save anybody any money. Wages in restaurants will be raised to take account of the absence of tips, and the increased costs will be passed on to customers through their bills. And even after that, I would be surprised if many people, wanting to feel grand or to coax a smile from a pretty waitress, didn’t go on tipping just as before.

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  • davidshort10

    I still tip in France where it is now all service compris, and yes also in London and restaurants in other countries if the waitresses are good-looking and I might be returning.

    • Fraziel

      wtf has the waitresses being good looking got to do with it? I barely register what they look like and could care even less.

      • davidshort10

        We are not all gay and we are not all blind.

  • davidofkent

    The very idea that tipping (at the end of a meal) establishes a personal relationship between diner and waitress is risible. Two seconds after you have left the restaurant, the waitress will have forgotten you entirely. This is the sort of nonsense that would only make sense in America where people can have very odd ideas. As for a 20% tip, you would have to be mad to leave that amount. In most restaurants in London the service is usually OK, especially now that all of the staff are Eastern Europeans, French or Spanish (a huge improvement on the old days of slovenly, morose English waiters). It is rarely any better than OK and a tip of 10% to make up their wages is all that is necessary. That assumes, of course, that the restaurant does not keep all the tips itself; has that been outlawed yet? I’m looking at you Cafe Rouge, Côte etc. etc.

  • Freddythreepwood

    My understanding is that the US taxman has decided that waiting staff will be taxed for a certain amount of tips, whether they have received them or not. This may have changed since last time I was in NY, but it certainly would explain why the staff consider it imperative that they are tipped, at least at the rate the taxman will be taking. Interesting though that our tips, or a hefty proportion of them, are going into Uncle Sam’s pocket.

  • Fraziel

    I never tip taxi drivers any more but thats because despite their endless whingeing they charge huge sums and are often well paid. I am more than happy to tip 10% in a restaurant if the service and food was good.

  • smeged34

    Have any of you spent an extended period of time working with the general public? Are you aware of the vile and abusive behaviour that service staff can encounter on a regular basis? I’ve been called a ‘servant’, spat at, sworn at and even assaulted during my career.
    We don’t complain, we certainly don’t want any sympathy, we just get on with our work and try to deliver the best service for all of our customers on a daily basis (and funnily enough, earn a half decent living whilst we are at it).
    If you don’t want to tip then fine (I certainly never expect a tip), but why remove one of the only perks associated with such a gruelling, low paying and often thankless job?
    I only advocate tipping if a customer believes that they have received exceptional service. You would be surprised at the difference a tip (or even a verbal acknowledgement of good service) can make to a person’s day.
    And trust me, we try to remember the people who tip us, and I do appreciate every gratuity I have received. I certainly do not expect, but do appreciate.

    • Max Keynes

      I have done all sorts of minimum wage jobs, from being a server to sweeping the streets. Only when being a server have I ever received tips, and it was among the nicest and easiest jobs.
      Quit whining.

  • JohnnyNorfolk

    When in Rome.