The practice of tipping

Have you ever found yourself clammy-handed as you awkwardly leave a restaurant abroad, unsure of whether you’ve tipped an insultingly low sum or a foolishly high amount? Or realised to your horror that the bellboy at an American hotel will expect a crisp dollar bill, and you have nothing smaller than the $50 bills you exchanged at the airport?

Whether you’re stepping into an American hotel room after an 11-hour flight, or leaving a restaurant after a romantic night out, the practice of tipping regularly introduces a sour, stressful note into what should be a carefree moment.

Tipping etiquette might seem like a tiny thing to get in a tizz about, but psychologists now recognise “tipping anxiety” as an increasingly common form of social anxiety. It throws up all sorts of questions that you really don’t want to mull over as you contentedly suck on a wafer-thin mint.

Will the staff think we didn’t enjoy our meal if we leave anything less effusive than 20 per cent of the bill? Who am I to decide if the server should be punished or rewarded for doing their job? Perhaps she’s just having a bad day! Will my companions think I’m a mug or a miser according to how much I tip? Is the server reliant on generous tips; oh God, what a sad thought? Who has more power in the relationship between server and customer, and would I rather be the powermonger or the power-free party in this whole sorry exchange? How would someone slick and serene handle this situation?


A recent survey by Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC) Forum found that a third of British holidaymakers actively avoid destinations where there is a prevailing tipping culture, in order to sidestep the stress of it all. In destinations such as Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore, for example, tipping is not expected and could even cause offence, although foreign travelers probably get a pass.

While avoiding destinations entirely seems extreme, I can sympathise. I recently spent a week working alone in San Francisco, and as an awkward person at the best of times, making sure I had enough dollar bills to tip bellboys, barmen and housekeeping staff was an additional hassle I really could have done without. In America, tipping culture is an obligation masquerading as an option, and if there’s one thing I detest, it’s the illusion of choice where we don’t have any. So it was a relief to discover that I was in one of San Francisco’s growing number of no-tipping restaurants, Sessions at the Presidio. It felt like a holiday from the stress of America’s tipping culture.

Three years ago, New York restaurateur Danny Meyer made the news by announcing that he would be eliminating tipping at all 13 of his restaurants. This “hospitality included” approach was hailed as a positive effort to eradicate the unfair pay disparity between front and back of house, and offer employees a more reliable income, less vulnerable to the whims of customers on any given night. Meyer is a big cheese in the hospitality world, and his decision to increase salaries and wrap gratuities into the prices on the menu (which went up by 25 per cent) had a big impact across America, with hotels and restaurants following suit.


The policy might have been introduced with hospitality staff in mind, but it was a hit with diners and hotel guests, who appreciated the fact that paying the bill no longer involved anxiety.

This guesswork costs us more than frayed nerves. A study by comparethemarket.com found most Britons overtip on holiday; on average, we overtip by £78 over a typical nine-day break, out of sheer awkwardness. Eighteen per cent of us have found that confusion over tipping etiquette had a negative impact on their trip.

The practice of tipping isn’t just archaic (increasingly so in a cash-free, card-reliant society), awkward and expensive. It’s unfair to both parties; the staff who aren’t being paid a consistent, living wage, and the customer, doomed to overtip out of guilt and confusion. There is enough confusion in my life, without having it as a side dish every time I eat out when I’m abroad. So if you’re a fellow member of the anxious tippers club, it’s worth seeking out and supporting this growing number of tip-included restaurants and hotels. Our support is a tip I’m happy to leave.


 

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