Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Mechanics of Tipping

I've just read an article from the BBC web about the "Mechanics of Tipping, American Style" which has me so charged up, so to speak, that I just can't refrain from responding.

Alas, there was no comment section as there often is at the bottom of BBC news stories because, I guess, this was a 'commentary' not 'news' and as such the content isn't supposed to be subjected to the scrutiny afforded facts. This makes sense, since much of what the correspondent writes is opinion which has at it's root many cliches and shopworn conventions, not just about tipping, but about the service for which it is supposed to pay.

At the heart of his essay is this premise: "...to me there is something un-American at the heart of the whole idea of tipping." What makes this laughable and worth the effort to refute is the fact that our correspondent is not only English, but proudly so, and the point of his essay is to prove that as a semi-detached 'European' he is both amused and appalled at the "moment of awkwardness" that sums up his experience of tipping in the U.S.

What is in some way frustrating to me about this is the fact that I am not convinced that the American style of tipping--that is, withholding payment for service rendered until satisfied--is all that "American" in practice either. Having experienced both the European style of service and tipping, I can say that the former is seldom better than the American style in speed, efficiency or courtesy (especially) and that the latter is just a cruel joke.

I can understand the writer's confusion about why he is might be expected to tip on an expensive bottle of wine that takes no more "effort or skill to serve" than a cheap one. Applying this logic, he might well conclude it's not worth eating out at all, since the food you eat could be purchased more cheaply at the supermarket, after all. His sense of appreciation for services rendered may be so low simply because he's never given any thought to how that food or bottle of wine got there and why they go so well together. Of course, being British, he's more likely to enjoy a five dollar cabernet--or is it warm beer?--with a packet of 'crisps' on the curb outside a convenience store than he is a nice bottle of wine served by a professional, in a clean glass, on a linen tablecloth, with fresh flowers for the eye and accompanied by good food.

What I cannot understand is the writer's notion that knowing that the waiter or waitress is dependent on us for their income makes the transaction some sort of robbery. Indeed, we pay a doctor and do not tip him or her, thankfully. But, we pay the doctor before we go in, first of all. And, even though you don't think you are giving him a "tip", consider that fact that from your "fee' and the hundreds of others he's collecting that day and the next, he's living in a house that is twice the size of yours, and the reason he's off next Wednesday afternoon while you are at work is because he's out playing golf on a private course with your money. There are no waiters on that course, believe me.

Yes, indeed, it would be a good world where the waiters and waitresses who don't just take your order, but also listen to your lame jokes, watch you as make a fool of yourself in front of your friends and/or family, and clean up you and your children's mess when you finally stumble out, get paid the same as the doctor who greets you coldly thirty minutes after you've been asked to strip down to your underwear and "wait right here". Or would it? Wouldn't you rather; don't you prefer, to be served?

Sure the American waiter greets you with potentially false enthusiasm and a lot of adjectives meant to enhance your experience as well as their tip, but would you really prefer to have your meal simply dropped on the table in front of you with no explanation or concern that your order is right? If you are British, apparently, you would, for that is the norm for service in the U.K.. Of course, this is where there is no expectation for actual taste in the food either. You get what you pay for.

I agree that it can indeed be a shameful experience watching a young waiter grovel for a few extra cents on your check, but it can be a downright frustrating experience having a waiter ignore you with impunity. However, if you are British, apparently you don't worry about the fact that you've just spent more on a meal than the waiter will earn in a day, since you consider payment for service to be "a kind of a private, self-imposed wealth tax, rather than a tip".

I won't go into the European economic caste system here, but consider the fact that a waiter in Europe has no expectation of doing anything but the absolute minimum required to serve your food. While he certainly will not be an aspiring actor bubbling over with false enthusiasm, more likely, your server will be a tired and burned out old man who could not care less about your experience and/or satisfaction. You will get what you pay for.

I will end this little rant by observing that I have had the displeasure of waiting on the correspondent in question. While I do believe that he gave me a wonderful lesson on American economic theory by leaving me just a little less than ten dollars for two hours of work, it's clear that I'd be better off waiting on Americans in Europe than the other way round.

1 comment:

valgal said...

AH-MEN, brother!