Monday, September 29, 2008

Tipping in a Foreign Country: The U.S.

I ordered takeout from my favorite neighborhood restaurant tonight. As I stood next to cash register to receive and pay for my food, I noticed something going on before my eyes.

First, I noticed a family of four -- two kids and two adults -- get up and get ready to leave.

As the family started to leave (you know this sometimes takes some time), one of the waiters came to register with cash in his hand, presumably from someone having paid his bill. He kept counting through the bills (I counted maybe $70), as if somewhat distressed.

Eventually, another waiter says to the alpha male of the departing family, "Was everything okay? Did we do something wrong?"

Uh-oh, I thought.

"No, everything was fine," the guy responded.

"Well, I was just asking because you didn't leave any tip," the waiter continues.

Just for the record here, I don't really condone waiters doing this. Whether by oversight or by deliberate omission, sometimes people don't leave tips. I'm not a fan of waiters shaking down their patrons for their lack of tipping skills. It's rude and a bit tacky.

Anyway, the guy didn't understand what was meant by this. "Customarily," the waiter explained, "Diners add an extra 15% to for their waiters here."

"We're from New Zealand," the diner explained. But he didn't reach for his pocket, that's for sure.

"What's wrong?" his wife asked, coming back to the scene while the two kids lingered near the front of the restaurant.

"Nothing," the husband said, firmly.

I wasn't looking, but I'm reasonably confident that the waiter -- whose English skills weren't the best, by the way (I clarified his sentences for him in this entry) -- gave up explaining the concept and waved him off, probably dismissively, in a "whatever, just go already" kind of way.

Then they left.

I couldn't help thinking that any reasonable guide book published by any decent New Zealand company would have described the tipping etiquette in this country. And I couldn't help thinking that when Americans go abroad without bothering to learn the accepted social customs in the destination country, they get slammed with the "Ugly American" label pretty damn quick. Yet here it was, a Kiwi couple who apparently not only didn't bother to learn tipping etiquette for American restaurants, but they didn't even seem open to the thought of learning it when they were confronted with it.

It also led me to wonder how many other servicepeople they've stiffed so far, and how many they will stiff in the near future. I presume they're not cooking during their stay here, so each meal will likely entail a waitstaff who, it seems, are not getting tipped. If they're staying in a hotel, they probably won't leave a little something for the cleaning staff, whether it be on a daily basis or at the end of their entire stay. What if they catch a cab anywhere?

Of course, it's all just a part of the culture here. I couldn't help scripting out in my mind what kind of conversation I would have had with this couple had the opportunity for a civil discourse on the matter arisen. I suppose I would have explained to them the notion here in the States that, just as a matter of course, diners leave more money than covers their bill on the table. "It's a gratuity for the waitstaff and others who make your dining experience enjoyable," I'd say.

Then I can imagine them coming back: "But isn't that built into the price on the menu? They charge $12 for a meal when I could buy the ingredients for $5. That extra is what should be going towards the waitstaff and others 'who make the dining experience more enjoyable.'"

And to that, I suppose my only response would have to just be, "Well, that's what we do around here."

As it is, I know I already have one friend who doesn't tip cleaning people in hotels just on general principle. Like the theoretical Kiwi response above, his philosophy is that you don't pay over $100-200 per night to stay in a room then pay extra for something like cleaning service, which, ahem, is expected when you stay in a hotel. I just tip because it's customary anyway, but yes, sometimes I do wonder where all that money goes if they at those rates they still can't afford to pay their staff decent salaries or wages.

Anyway, it's a little refreshing -- though not in a good way, I guess -- to know that sometimes, the "Ugly American" myth is just as easily transportable to other foreigners visiting our soil.