Sunday, December 12, 2010

Tipping Point

Grumpy in New York

Welcome to The United States Of America, the land of have a nice day and tipping. Tipping, tipping, tipping. I was aware that this ridiculous concept had – like so much American culture – infected parts of the world where it was not required (try tipping in Portugal and they think you are mad... they'll accept your 10%, but they'll be laughing their arse off on the inside at your stupidity), and I was aware that it existed here because the basic wage in the hospitality industry was embarrassingly low, but I was not aware of just how entrenched and how fundamental it was to every transaction. Well not every transaction, but most transactions involving food and drink.

Brief history – tipping apparently came about in the Great Depression of the 1930s as a way of restaurant owners keeping staff on without paying them, leaving the staff to rely on their good service to earn their tips. Quite a nice story, really.

Cut to now. HELLOOO - IT'S NOT THE 1930S ANYMORE. Sure, things might not be as good as they could be right now, but overall it's just not as bad as it was during The Depression. Why, then, is the hospitality industry in the good old U.S. Of A still underpaying their staff and forcing its patrons to fix it up by paying for fake smiles and forced bounciness? And it's complicated too.

Just off the plane, The Dreaded One and I asked how much for a cab from the airport to Manhattan. “Fifty five bucks - not including the tip.” It was $7 for the subway which would be quicker and a lot more adventurous, so we took the subway. I'd kind of thought the tip for the cab would have been a couple of dollars or just rounded up to the nearest dollar, but ooooh no. In restaurants now they give you three suggested levels of gratuity – 15%, 20% or 25%. I've read that if you go to an expensive restaurant you are automatically expected to pay 25%. You don't have to go all out to clock up, say $200 on a meal. So that will be an expected $50 you also hand over to the waiter for doing their job. And at bars? You buy a drink and it's say, $12 for a JD & coke, but you add another dollar on for the tip. In fact they give you loads of $1 notes in your change because you are expected to pay a tip for each and every drink you buy. Needless to say, you don't stay out getting shit-faced very often.

You do tip waiters. In some cases you are supposed to tip the host, the front person who shows you to your table. You don't tip behind the counter people. You do tip cabs and hair cutters. If someone grabs your bags to help you with them (dude, I've made it around the world without little you by my side to help me so back the fuck off), you are expected to tip them for each bag they have groped. If a hotel guy takes you to your room and points out where the telly and the bathroom is (one guy actually did this – he even opened the closet door and told us it was the closet and closed the door again), you are supposed to tip them. You don't tip housekeeping staff... unless you have stayed three days or more, then it's a dollar a day. It was all so confusing I was starting to see visions of pugs in top hats (and wondering how much I should tip them).

And check your bill if you're with groups of friends before adding on your tip because in all likelihood, the restaurant has already kindly added on an extra 18%tip.

You start to question quotes like the one on the horse-drawn carts that take you around Central Park. Average price between $20 and $50. But does that include the tip? How much is the tip?

The end result of all of this? I will probably not do the horse and cart thing. I will not get pissed at bars very often. I'll eat out less and will probably only go to one reasonably nice restaurant while I'm here because otherwise I will be broke. It's already an expensive city, the last time I looked the Aussie dollar was doing okay but was still a few percentage points behind the American dollar, and alsotooaswell – start paying your hospitality people a basic wage, American hospitality industry. You can do it. Presumably you know about cost breakdowns, profit margins etc, stop being so lazy. Or greedy.

I'm guessing a lot of the hospitality industry like the tipping system because I've seen some bar staff rake it in. But the overall effect... well I wonder. I'm not a tight-arse and I am tipping what is considered the appropriate amount (when in Rome etc), but I can't be the only person who just can't afford to spend as much as I would if I wasn't expected to throw away extra chunks of my hard-earned cash at (almost) every transaction.

Grumpy is Lee Bemrose ( He suggests a 15% gratuity for reading this column. Have a nice day.


Y said...

Ok here's my tip.. just enjoy it while you're there. It's New-freakin-York afterall! :)

Lee said...

Oh I am enjoying it, don't get me wrong. I just think their tipping culture is fucked up... as is their passion for disposable coffee cups. Everyone wanders around with throw away coffee cups and many of the cafes serve dine in coffee in throw-aways. What is wrong with these people? Our hotel even serves breakfast in disposables... which is funny because Ann and I have our own non-throaway plastics to avoid disposables for picnics etc. Other hotel patrons were looking at us put coffee in our cups and food on our (stylish) plastic platter and clearly wondering where they get their nice shiny plastic from.

But yes, it's New York and it's amazing.

Guyana-Gyal said...

I have no idea why but tipping scares me. Yet here, if someone does an extra job, we give him / her, a little 'extra'. But it's not every single person, every corner we turn.

Lee said...

That's just it, GG - they set a minimum (basically 15%) and you are just expected to pay it no matter what. You can not pay, and you can complain if service is bad, but mostly it's passable and nothing more, so why do we have to pay extra because someone is doing their job? It's just wrong.

moreidlethoughts said...

I came here via Guyana Girl (thanks for the tip, GG!) and find this interesting/scary as I'm off to NY in 10 days.
D'you mind if I link to this post from my blog?(Yes, I do like to poke wasp nests!)

Lee said...

Go for it. Hit me up for any info as well. New York was brilliant and I hope to make it back. Loved it, and that is a most unexpected surprise.