Can someone please explain the tipping thing?

6 04 2006

OK, I've travelled a lot to the US and Canada. And everywhere we're advised to tip the waiter (and other service people) some 15-20% of the cost of the service. This is NOT common practice in Australia and something that – after all these visits – still rankles with me to the point where I often don't tip at all.

I've heard the arguments about the wait staff being paid a pittance and so they have to make up for it in tips. But this is a Catch-22 argument – if the employers paid a decent, award wage, then tips wouldn't be needed; but because waiters get tips, employers don't pay a decent wage. A very circular argument that goes nowhere… and doesn't convince me.

What I want to know is what about all the other people in the restaurant? Who actually gets the tip? The person who serves you (can be more than one), the busboy who cleans up the tables afterwards (I've seen them pocket tips left on the table), and what about the rest of the staff – like the people who do the hard work of preparing the meal, making sure the place is clean, taking the bookings, cleaning the dishes etc. What do *they* get from the tips? Why just the waiters? What makes them so special that they get all this extra money?

And if I leave $$ on the table or on the VISA slip, how does the money get divided up with these other people? Is there an honour system whereby you tell everyone what tips you got for the night and it gets divided equally, or do you pocket your own and say nothing and don't share with anyone else who made the meal happen?

The other argument I've heard is that tipping is for good service. Well, isn't service exactly that – "service"? And doesn't "service" imply that you have a job to do and are required to do it politely and civilly? If you're in the service industry, then THAT'S YOUR JOB. You shouldn't be paid more for it. The other thing we've found is that most service isn't exceptional – it's just service. Nothing more or less. Just what I expect. So why this pressure to tip for something that I consider to be part of the job?

We had a situation yesterday that brought this home to me – we were at a chain restaurant and the waiter came up towards the end of the meal and asked if everything was OK. Well, it's a bit late to ask then, and I realised that her question was just a euphemism for "I'm still here. You are going to give me a good tip, aren't you?" Where was she earlier when my husband wanted Tabasco sauce for his chilli? Where was she when my uncle wanted a decaf coffee? Nowhere to be seen. But she pops her head in our faces right when we're down to the last French Fry to ask if everything is OK. And of course, she sure isn't expecting a negative response! Not that we gave her one, but I wondered what she would or could do if we told her the meal was horrid (it wasn't, by the way). Would she have the authority to refund part of the meal, give us a voucher for another meal, or just apologise and tell us she'll let the kitchen staff know.

So, after that little ramble, if anyone living in the US and who has perhaps worked as a waiter can offer me any valid reason why I should tip, I'll consider it. And not being paid enough won't fly with me – that's an issue between employer and employee and needs to be sorted in another arena.