I have close to a decade of experience working in restaurants, initially during school and college and then full time for several years. Though the bulk of that was spent in the kitchen, I also did a spell as a waiter.
It is a cruel station at the best of times so, like almost any other who has ever worked in the hospitality sector, I almost always tip.
These days, I earn my living writing about that same sector which has only copperfastened my already deeply entrenched opinion though, by rights, when considering tipping’s origins, I should probably hold the opposite position.
According to Kerry Segrave’s Tipping: An American Social History of Gratuities, the custom arose in 17th century England when overnight guests in stately homes took to leaving ‘vails’, a token sum for the servants.
It soon became aristocratic practice to dispense largesse to social inferiors with the aspirational lower orders soon following suit, not least among them, wealthy arriviste Americans travelling to Europe after the Civil War who returned home with the habit were it rapidly became institutionalised.
In other words, tipping reeked of condescension and exploitation, the haves patronising the have-nots, and, as in the case of the early Pullman train porters, tipping was a substitute for any wage at all. Yet, I still favour tipping.
First of all, it dramatically improves the quality of service, especially if you are a repeat customer with a rep for largesse.
Of course, any good professional should treat all customers equally , affording them the very best service possible but let’s be realistic, money does a whole lot more than talk and I will readily ’fess up to my own shameless hustling, Irish charm turned up to 11 in order to gull an extra pound or two from aging American tourists in a restaurant near London Bridge.
It wasn’t naked greed, per se, simply the realisation that the horrifically low basic pay on its own would see me returning to a diet of cream crackers and water (they expand in the belly, occupying that space where hunger pangs are born and neither was the Hungarian proprietor of a mind to feed his staff).
Admittedly, tipping in Ireland is a loose arrangement utterly bereft of logic. If we tip, we tip random professions: hairdressers, taxi drivers, the postman at Christmas. In the hospitality sector, we tip waiters— who often share with kitchen staff. We tip porters and chambermaids yet we don’t tip bar staff.
In the US, it is a cultural given that you tip the barman at every round. It took several nights out in San Francisco before I realised my ignorance of this custom had a direct correlation to the high prevalence of pouting Peters behind the bar near-spitting into my glass.
Yet in Ireland, where a good barman can attain the status of a consultant doctor, we give them not a jot.
Unless service is shocking or a problem hasn’t been satisfactorily dealt with, I always tip in restaurants, generally about 10% of the overall bill. If I don’t tip for those aforementioned reasons, I make sure to tell them why.
I would hope it is shared with the kitchen but, if not, it doesn’t bother me; waiters, along with kitchen porters, tend to be the lowest paid in many Irish restaurants.
Consider this: many waiters are paid the minimum wage, €8.65 an hour, for what is a very demanding job, on your feet, moving at pace for the entire shift; keeping a lot of constantly changing information updated in your head; and all the while dealing with the whims and vagaries of a general public that runs the full gamut from angel to a**hole.
Bear with me while I do my best Carol Vorderman — €8.65 an hour multiplied by 40 hours per week is €346. Multiplied by 52 weeks and divided by 12 gives us €1,499.33 per month. Recent statistics from numbeo.com suggest the average cost of living in Dublin is €840 per month per person, excluding rent.
The average rent for a three-bed apartment (outside the city centre) is €1692.13 per month. Dividing that by three equals €564 per month which, when added to the cost-of-living figure, means you are talking €1,404 just to exist in the capital.
In other words, 40 hours a week in one of the toughest gigs in catering, all to clear just €95.33, still someway short of the price of a three-course meal for two with wine in many better Dublin restaurants.
Other than calling for the minimum wage to be raised to an actual living wage, I don’t feel I need to make any further points in favour of tipping.
There are many reasons why tipping is bad. Here are a few. It turns straightforward politeness into a cash transaction. It discriminates against the overweight, the unattractive and ethnic minorities.
It facilitates and often actively encourages employers to underpay staff. Also, it’s naff and toe-curlingly American and, in the end, is shown by empirical research to have nothing to do with standard of service. That’s why I don’t tip — and why I think you shouldn’t either.
In Ireland, the psychology of tipping feels especially complex and contradictory. Why are tip jars ubiquitous in coffee houses yet unheard of in bars? Does a barista deserve our munificence while someone manning a beer tap does not? (A point articulated perfectly in Mr Pink’s anti-tipping rant in Reservoir Dogs “Society says don’t tip these guys over here, but tip these guys over here?”) How has tipping come to be obligatory, more or less, in restaurants, regardless of service quality?
We dutifully count out that 12%-15% gratuity in sweaty loose change regardless of whether the waiter/waitress was pleasant or aloof, efficient or heel-dragging. How did we get here?
It’s worth noting that even in America tipping faces a backlash and with good reason. The statistics are incontrovertible. Regardless of service, good looking people receive higher tips than the homely; blondes do better than brunettes; and white people garner more than other ethnicities. In short, tipping is an opportunity to discreetly — or not so discreetly — discriminate
But for a European abroad the biggest argument against the practice is that it reduces human contact to cash-based interaction. We’ve all basked in the glow of the American service industry only to see the smiles switched off when we fail to produce the cash reward the server believes their pandering has earned.
They weren’t being polite — they were bowing and scraping to order and expected to be paid for their effort. Conversely, tipping is taboo in Japan, but standards of service are far higher than in Europe or the United States. I’m with the Japanese: politeness shouldn’t be an optional add-on.
An embedded tipping culture is also bad for service industry employees. In the United States, 4.3m service industry workers rely on tipping for their income. Is that an economic model we would like to see imported to Europe?
“The system is flawed,” The Economist pointed out in an editorial last year. “Tips are paid after the service is provided, allowing opportunistic stingers to scarper, free-riding on the generosity of others.
Society tries to stop this by imposing a strong social norm on diners — tip much less than 15%–20% and either be engulfed with shame, or face disapproval from your date. But this strong social norm undermines the original rationale for tips as a way to incentivise excellent service. “
Tipping isn’t even as quintessentially American as commonly assumed. The practice began in Britain, where footmen expected a gratuity from their well-heeled employers — and would pour gravy on their britches if short-changed.
By the end of the American Civil War tipping had been conveyed across the Atlantic by Americans wishing to emulate their more ‘sophisticated’ British cousins.
It was, in other words, an outlier for American anglophilia, that unfortunate reflex which would later bring us Austin Powers movies, adult Harry Potter fans and James Corden driving around with random annoying pop stars. All of those ought to have been prohibited at the outset — and so should tipping.