Tipping point

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With most waiters and waitresses in the United States earning significantly less than the minimum wage, tipping in restaurants is not just a nice way of saying thanks for good service – it’s a whole way of life. When it comes down to it, service has got to be pretty damn atrocious for you not to tip. I mean, I’d probably not tip a waiter or maître d’ who looked me square in the eye as he or she spat into my soup, but even then I’d feel guilty as I skulked out of the restaurant.

It’s not difficult to tip properly in a restaurant over here. You simply calculate 20% of the total bill, and either leave it in dollar bills, or add it on to your credit card. Of course, the amount you leave is discretionary, but 20% seems to be the figure that is both expected and deserved. I was once told that to calculate the tip, you should just double the sales tax (which is 8.625% in New York). But after being effectively chased out of a restaurant by an irate waitress demanding to know what had been wrong with the service she had given us, I never made that mistake again.

The problem is not tipping properly, it’s just knowing where to draw the line at who to tip. Tipping is so engrained into American culture that it sometimes seems that you need to tip anyone who gives you any kind of service whatsoever. For a Brit out of water, the temptation is always to tip heavily so that you don’t seem like a tightwad cheapskate who has still got a chip on his shoulder about our defeat in the American Revolution. Which causes all manner of dilemmas when you go into the dry cleaners to pick up some clothes. I mean, the guy in Armando’s is after all providing me with a service when he presses my shirts. So does that mean I should tip him, or does the payment I make for the service cover him off? I veer towards the latter, but then the look he gives me when I try to talk Italian football with him makes me think that he’s about to put out a contract on one of our cats.

The issue reached crisis point today with two tipping predicaments. As I was putting up shelves this afternoon, the buzzer for the door rang out to indicate that a FedEx delivery man was bringing up some packages. Now, he’s climbing three flights of stairs to get up to our apartment, presumably with heavy boxes. My heart starts to pound as I realise that I have no idea whether I should tip him or not. My soon-to-be-wife is in the shower so I can’t turn to her for hardened American advice, and I don’t even have any dollar bills in my pockets to proffer in case of emergency.

So what do I do? I use the old fashioned British technique, and decide that if he looks at me in the same way he would if I had just broken wind at his grandmother’s funeral, I would race off to find some cash. As it was, he barely batted an eyelid, and I let him meander cashlessly back down the stairs. Although I have no doubt that as he walked his weary way down, he was emailing all his delivery colleagues to say that all future deliveries to 4B should be considered for defecation initiatives.

Then tonight at a party on Staten Island (sounds glamorous, but is more Isle of Dogs than the Seychelles), I availed myself of a glass of Pinot Grigio from a barmaidtender hired by the party host to serve their guests. No payment exchanges hands, as all the alcohol is free. So if the booze costs nothing, and the host is paying the bartender, does that mean that I still have to tip? I naturally assume not. But the daggers I receive from Soon To Be Wife when I happily regale the tale a few minutes later, suggest that I got it horribly wrong.

Tipping is a scarring experience, and when it comes down to it, I’m going to adopt the principle of “if in doubt, tip.” I’m back in the UK next weekend, to see friends, family, and eleven men in red shirts and white shorts. I can only imagine the face of the girl serving me in Lou Macari’s chip shop, when I give her a fiver for steak and kidney pie, chips and gravy, and tell her she can keep the change.

PS If you want to read a great blog about the experiences of waiters in New York, look no further than Waiter Rant. A genuinely nice guy and great writer – but never leave him less than 20%, OK?

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