Editorial: Is Tipping in America Excessive? An Englishman’s Take

(Photo: Fotolia)

(Photo: Fotolia)

The other night, bidding farewell to my guests following a meal, a heavy hand grabbed my shoulder from behind. It wasn’t an old friend who had spotted me from across the car park. It wasn’t an angry patron who I’d pushed in front of or someone whose girlfriend I’d chatted up.

It was a waiter who, after accosting me in this fashion, explained his angst: “Hey! You didn’t leave me enough tip!”

Now, we weren’t in a strip club in Lewisham. No, we were in an elegant restaurant in a posh part of Beverly Hills adjacent. Furthermore, we had left about seventeen percent, on the full $200 amount of a discounted check (it was half-price night), even though we received horrible service, which his actions outside only served to punctuate. Yes, we left $35 on top of a $100 check, effectively a 35 percent tip, and Dude still wasn’t happy.

It led me to thinking, would the same situation happen in the U.K.? There, a place where tipping happens but not in an excessive way, we tip for truly good service or in high-end places, where the experience allows for the gratitude. Certainly, if a waiter behaved this way in a place like that, they would be fired for misconduct. But here in America, tipping, though subtitled “optional,” is absolutely expected, thus giving the receivers a righteousness over my extra dollars.

The honorable level is something of hot topic, especially amongst service workers or expats, who debate amounts with the fervor of two delinquents over a video game score. Some say at least 15 percent—18 percent is fair, 20 percent is good. Others conclude that leaving a tip of 15 percent or less shows them the service was bad. If it was bad, why are we giving anything? If the new toaster you bought didn’t brown bread, you’d take it back for a refund. And you can always count on the high-rolling douchebag to ruin all equations with a palm-gracing equivalent of a small country’s GDP, setting new precedents in the waiting world.

I’ve noticed in America there are three species of tippers.

Guilt Tippers are the empathizers: they’ve “been there themselves” or “seen the struggle” or simply are uncomfortable with the extra cash that’s bulging out of their allowance. They sympathize with the server, knowing that their contribution will help the person get a step closer to that Lamborghini / yoga pose / Arbonne goalpost on his or her vision board.

Ego Tippers are those that loudly proclaim how much they’re putting in, or drop a hundy at the bar for a beer, and reconfirm to the bartender (usually a hottie) that they can keep the change, three or four times. These types should generally be avoided if you wear highly flammable clothes, as bottle service sparklers are often nearby.

Then, Fear Tippers follow trends reluctantly to secure their dignity, shun conflict, nurture relationships, or to avoid a bogey sandwich next time at their favorite eatery. These poor souls feel the further wrath of the modern payment app, requiring them to add tip and sign right in front of the intimidating employee.

Here’s what also strikes me as bizarre: if two people sit at the same restaurant, different tables, both have the lasagna and a bottle of wine, why does the guy with the expensive palate and job promotion pay more tip? It takes exactly the same effort and time to pop and pour the vintage Puligny Montrachet as it does the house Fetzer, yet the enjoyment of our hard-earned wealth is democratically shared with the cork-popper.

I have numerous friends that work in restaurants. I’m an actor in L.A.; it’s like having a Chihuahua in Beverly Hills. Many of them actually are well-compensated by their server jobs, often much more than nurses, doctors or other professionals back home. It’s an interesting conundrum, as these high potential earnings make it a somewhat aspirational position, with countless getting waylaid from their true goal. On the flipside, I think this optional/obligatory tipping equally encourages establishments to underpay their staff, expecting patrons to make up the deficit. Besides, if you’ve ever been to dinner with a server in America, you’ve probably seen them give back most of their wages in a ludicrously geared tip.

Where does it stop? Restaurants expect tips; that’s normal. Coffee shops now have a little pot, often with Guilt-Tipper-targeted taglines of “Karma” or “Tipping Makes You Sexy” inscribed. Hotels have various interaction points from valet, to bellboy, to cleaner to concierge that could wind up doubling your bill. Do you tip the guy that packs your grocery bag? The bank manager who approved your mortgage? The car mechanic that didn’t screw you (he said)? I’ve long thought it would be an interesting exercise to dedicate a week to over-tipping all these unsung heroes instead.

So what are my top tips for tipping? Well, whatever your stance, if you’re in another country and it’s customary to tip, then that’s what you should do. Find your point of comfort though and tip reasonably based on that. Factor it in before you decide where to go, rather than getting a shock when you get the check. If you’re in a group splitting the bill, calculate the average amount of tip before you leave someone else to pay. Don’t rely on discount vouchers or Groupons for a cheap night out—the tip will ensure it’s still pricey. Make more money, so giving gratuity doesn’t hurt as much.

Or just switch teams and follow your own patrons aggressively into the parking lot for that extra two percent.

What IS the correct amount to tip and to whom? Join @MindTheGap_BBCA and etiquette expert @DebbyMayne tomorrow (Wednesday, June 4) at 2 pm ET on Twitter to discuss using hashtag #MindTheChat for a chance to win a Ripper Street Season 2 download from iTunes.

See more:
Tipping in America: How To Do It and What To Expect If You Don’t
8 Stupid Mistakes Brits Make in America
Eating Out: 10 Differences Between Britain and America