When I was a kid in South Africa, we always used to tip. My Ma’s strategy was always to leave a small pile of coins hidden below the dishes. When I’ve gone back to Africa as an adult, there have been different strategies available for tipping, but it didn’t ever really impinge on my consciousness as a major thing. You pay a rand to the guy to watch your car, you add some arbitrary amount on at meals. Partially, that’s a factor of the exchange rate, which was R5.5:$1 last time I went back, which means no matter how extravagantly you tip, your meal is not going to be too outrageous. In Greece, there was also tipping, but it seemed to me like the tip was part of the negotiation you had with the maitre’d for the group meals that were my main dining experience.
In America, the situation is mathematically more complex, because the standard tip is double the tax. Tax, however, varies from state to state, and is also not included in the prices on the menu. So when you look at a $4.99 item, you need to figure out what the tax is, and then double that tax for the tip – roughly. Plus or minus a little for service; Hamish told me that if he ever sees the bottom of a “bottomless” coffee, that’s the tip gone. I’m not entirely sure whether that was a joke; I guess I’d just be happy to not have to drink the stale filter coffee anymore – but more on the coffee woes from guest author Clare, later.
To an extent, when I’ve been in Thailand or Africa, you’re dealing in such different magnitudes of money that it’s actually a bit easier, because you’ve got to completely overturn your expectations. In the US, I found myself always trying to do mental arithmetic like (Price+X% Tax+round(2*X%,0)+credit card fee)*NZ/US+exchange fee. If the tax had at least had the decency to be the same for everything everywhere, I think I could have gotten used to it.
While this was a bit annoying, I kept wondering why they had arranged their daily money in this way. Why persist not only with cash for most transactions, but ridiculous 1c coins? Why insist on hiding the true costs of everything?
I think in part, America is the land For Sale. It seemed to me that people were very proactive about selling their services – advertising was everywhere, and included a hefty component of people approaching you and making a sales pitch. I never encountered anything quite so blatant as the hawking of a Greek maitre’d, but there was that atmosphere anywhere in the cities. There was no service that wasn’t advertised on billboards and flyers and by people literally stopping you in the street and asking if you needed it.
It is easier to sell things if the number is low. People instinctively think about the $4.99 as a Lincoln with 1c change. They don’t think about $4.99+tax+service fee=Hamilton and change if you’re lucky. I guess natives must eventually adapt, but the fact that the price is $4.99 instead of an honest $5 to start with implies that someone somewhere doesn’t think so.
The second part is the tipping. I was first introduced to the politics of tipping by Quentin Tarrantino in Reservoir Dogs, and while I presume details may have changed, I’m led to understand that the basic situation is the same: wait-staff can and are paid less than the real value of their service to the business on the basis that the customer makes up the shortfall.
I had a South African acquaintance who, while complaining about the service everywhere in New Zealand, told me that tipping is the cornerstone of good service. It’s hard to deny rationally – good service may not get you much of a tip, but poor service is sure to scupper any chance of it. With very few exceptions, it did seem as if the wait-staff in the USA were far more interested in providing good service than they are here. Some places bordered on the uncomfortable, becoming almost obsequious, which my egalitarian NZ psychology was underprepared for.
However, it also seemed like tipping was assumed – I mention above about doubling the tax. Which means that, within certain margins, its actually probably fairly flat and so unlikely to change by a huge amount within a normal range of service. Clearly there’s always room for the exceptionally good or bad to receive their due reward – but on averages, surely it must even out? Which in effect makes the tipping part of a profit-sharing exercise, rather than a supplement to income. If the place you work is busy, you will get more tips in proportion to the sales of the company as a whole. Profit sharing on a very small scale. That means that great service is not only about you personally getting more money, but about growing the business – you want to get more repeat customers.
I am sure that on the whole, the proportions involved are such that the culture of tipping is structured such that it’s not as appealing for the workers as a representative average wage. I think that too is part of the American psyche though – that the expectation is that you must work for anything you get, anything you don’t have to work for is, broadly, an entitlement. The founding fathers didn’t fight off the British for you to be entitled to stuff – you have to pursue it yourself. Which relates back to their willingness and facility for selling whatever they have, whenever they can.
The conclusion I drew was that while not including tax or service at first looks just like an annoying piece of life-ergonomics, it is probably also a reflection of these deeper issues in the American psychology. But, this is just an anecdotal thing for a month in the South-West. I’m happy for more informed minds to correct any mistakes I’ve made in inference.