Everyone loves American tourists, as they are renowned to be big tippers, whereas most American servers despair at European tourists as they have a reputation for not tipping generously. Let me give you an insight as to why this is so, and why when British people tip in the US it can bring on a bout of anxiety. Having lived in both countries on and off, I see the dilemmas and cultural differences, but that doesn’t influence my preference to tip or not. I only really grasped how important the tipping culture is in the US when my cousin, who used to be a maître d at Indochine and 150 Wooster (a while back now) in New York City, told me if people didn’t leave at least 20 percent as a tip they would chase them. I realize now that she wasn’t joking, but you must understand in most countries, restaurants do pay their staff the minimum wage, and not like the US where the minimum wage is allowed to be made up with tips.
In the UK, people generally tip 10 percent and round up at the same time; if the bill is £18, most people would leave £20 because it would look mean to ask for 20 pence change, so in fact the tip is 12 percent. People do tip 15-20 percent for exceptional service, but still round up rather than calculate an exact amount from a percentage. However, in the US, 15 percent is deemed normal for average service, and 20 percent is considered the minimum one should leave. If the bill is $32, then a 20 percent tip would be $6.40; some people would round it up to $40 making it 25 percent, but most calculate it exactly to the cent.
Then there is the tip jar that I struggle to understand—I get why they exist in cafés and diners where you go in to grab a coffee or a sub, and will leave a tip if the service in general was good, but not self-service restaurants. Do you feel guilty if the jar is sparse and you opt to take your change rather than put it in the jar? I did at first (and watched them watching what I chose to do) and got over that quite quickly. I was once in a self-service organic café where the line was long (20 minute wait), basically as there was one cashier taking orders and the money, and it wasn’t a cheap café either. I paid by card and there was still the option to add a service charge on the slip, which I added zero to without hesitation, as well as a tip jar glaring me in the face. Why should I tip when the cashier never even looked at me and I hadn’t even got my order yet? How could I ascertain how much to give when I haven’t received any actual service? They yell when your order is ready; you have to collect it and then clear up after yourself too. I can’t see any reason why I should tip in a place where the only interaction was to place an order and pay for it, and everything else I did myself?
My British friend, Sara and I would hang out at a local café to use the Wi-Fi (and feel a bit guilty), but would order coffee, tea, a muffin, and banana bread. When it came to the tip, both of us would sigh and wonder what to leave as it was a regular hangout. The bill came to just under $15, and we had been there for a couple of hours. We spent 10 minutes discussing and calculating the various percentages, unsure whether we should tip precisely or over tip. We worked out 20 percent would have been $17, but to wait for $3 change would have looked too cheap, so we ended up leaving $20 which worked out to be a 40 percent tip. The service was fine and friendly, but the whole experience was more about how the servers would perceive us than how much we wanted to leave, and caused so much anxiety we ran out as soon as we could.
Another awkward situation arose when I offered to buy a pizza and beer for a friend who had helped me out, I mean that’s not expensive to share a pizza and have a drink each? The question is whether to tip on drinks or not, and most people say not to, because they are bringing you a drink. What I find annoying is the breakdown on the check of the food, beverages, tax, and service charge, and then suggestions for tip amounts. We ended up with a pizza a couple of sides, and he had several beers. He suggested I leave 25 percent as a tip as the server was someone he knew. I was opposed to leaving so much as we didn’t get any special treatment and the service wasn’t exactly fast in a quiet local place. So the pizza and beer ended up costing me $60 and I have to admit I begrudged the tip, which was equivalent to buying another whole pizza pie. To me a tip should to equate to buying the server a drink, not a whole meal.
I learned my lesson when it came to ordering in a pub though; there was one side of nachos and the rest was drinks. The service was bad and slow, the server had no idea of what wines there were and we ended up having to go in and get someone to take our order. Again, the American friend advised us when it came to tipping that it should still be 20 percent despite the slow service and the fact we only had drinks. The tip equated to another glass of wine, and I put down what I wanted (10 percent) and told him if he wanted to look good by tipping well he could make up the rest. I make no apology for failing to tip because someone expects it and because of the minimum wage law loophole that exists.
I’ve since found not all states are as bad, the following states pay a full cash minimum hourly wage to tipped staff;
California $10, Alaska $9.75, Oregon $9.75, Washington $9.47
If these states can do it, why can’t others? That means that tips are given in addition to the wages, just as it should be, and how it is in pretty much the rest of the world! Maybe it’s time for the US to understand how uncomfortable and awkward tipping is in a situation that is supposed to be relaxing and fun? The general rule of double the tax is fine in Massachusetts (6.25 percent), but works out to be nearly 20 percent in New York. For a Brit that’s way too much, and now I opt for 10-15 percent and round up to the dollar as a compromise. I think I would rather stick to states or establishments that pay their staff well because they value them rather than feel obliged to pay the staff wages via a tip.
It really is so much simpler in the UK—you pay the price you see on the menu, and then tip if you want to, knowing the staff still get paid (admittedly not always that much, but at least minimum wage), and I have been to places that have service charges included who remove it when the service was bad without asking. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s fair and transparent. You can read what the tipping etiquette is on most websites (and it differs greatly), but if it is written by an American in a city, that opinion will differ greatly from someone in a less populated area. A tip is not, and should not be classed as a wage; it’s not the responsibility of the customer to pay wages, but employers have a loophole that allows tips to be counted towards the hourly minimum. It’s their choice to pay the staff or not, and those who do pay at least the full minimum will have happier and harder working staff, and customers who won’t be made to feel guilty if they don’t tip 25 percent.