Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Why do we feel the need to tip?

Before I start, I should mention that I'm a waitress. I have been waitressing since I was about fourteen and so I have an intimate understanding of both sides of the story. The place where I work charges automatic gratuity. I don't like it and silently sympathise when customers complain about it but it's an extra few quid in my payslip at the end of the week, if I'm being entirely selfish. However, I feel it's become a thing we do without thinking, however good or bad the service was, and I think we need to start thinking about why we're tipping and whether it's really been earned.

I went to one of my favourite restaurants in Chinatown the other week. It's my go-to place because it serves good food and it's cheap. But the service is terrible. It takes an age to catch their eyes, they're a bit grumpy and they always give me the wrong cutlery. But I still tip them because I'd feel bad otherwise, which is ridiculous. It's almost like I'm being hypothetically emotionally blackmailed to leave a tip, and I'm certainly not leaving 10% (yes, TEN PERCENT, not 12.5 or 15%) because I thought the service was brilliant, or even good! So why is it so normal?

And why do we feel the need to tip only at restaurants? Why is it in the UK that we don't really tip anyone else with low-paid jobs - do we tip say, hairdressers or florists without thinking? Do they charge us service? I don't think so. Why is the hospitality industry so utterly revered, with chefs being treated like gods and waiters and waitresses being given extra money, just for doing their job?

One of the many explanations for tipping is that the word 'tips' originates from the acronym 'To Insure (ensure?) Prompt/Proper Service. This might not be true, but it is true that tipping used to happen before the meal to ensure that you were looked after well. That makes sense. Well, more sense. You shouldn't really have to pay more to ensure that you're looked after, but at least before, you are providing the wait staff with an incentive to work hard - if they expect a tip at the end of the meal, what's driving them to go the extra mile with you?

So why has the tradition changed to tipping after the meal? If the service has been particularly good. If the waiter or waitress goes beyond the call of duty to make sure that you have as comfortable and enjoyable a meal as possible. For example, picking out all of the red olives from the mixed ones because they can *only* eat green ones, remembering what that regular table's favourite wine is and suggesting a dish that would go well with it, or overhearing it's someone's birthday and getting the chefs to pipe 'Happy Birthday' onto their dessert plate. What we really want is for them to make you feel as comfortable as possible. Making suggestions, advising you that a certain dish takes a bit longer to cook than the rest, building up a genuine rapport and filling the awkward silence at the end of the meal when you're paying by making easy conversation. Pre-empting the diner's every request so they never have to ask for anything... That's the kind of service I would be happy to leave a tip for.

But tipping because the wait staff simply served you - why? If all they do is bring plates out and take orders and smile a couple of times, is that really enough? Are basic manners really worth 10-15%? Wait staff need to earn their right to a tip and not just assume that it's coming at the end. I'm exactly the same. I'll work my absolute hardest to make sure that customers are happy, but if they don't leave a tip, I'm affronted and mutter rude things under my breath when I'm cashing off their table on the till.

Tipping has become something that neither the wait staff or the customer thinks about. If you don't tip, you're branded as a bit of an arsehole. But you've paid £25 for the meal: bringing the plate out is surely included in that? If the service was the bare minimum, what exactly are you tipping? The fact that they didn't mess up your order? That you're scared of going back there if you don't tip? Even if the service is below standard, it's commonplace to tip, and if you don't, you run the risk of a confrontation. The funny thing is that the worse the service, the less likely you are to want to confront them about it.

Which brings me onto my next qualm. It's one thing to expect you to tip of your own accord, but the current trend of today which is in place in well, most places in Central London anyway is to add a 12.5% service charge (non-London friends balk at the added 12.5% service charge in restaurants; for me it has become a complete norm). The problem with the service charge is that as it's a given, the wait staff don't work for it and the customer gets a bit annoyed that they don't really get a choice of how much or indeed whether the tip is deserved. I mean, they say that it's optional, but it's not really because in some places, they get very annoyed if you want to remove the service (the only way to avoid this is to only pay in cash and who remembers to carry that much cash around with them?).

Another annoying trend is a service charge being added for sitting at the bar. You're sitting at the BAR where the staff don't even have to really move to serve you and is a lot less effort than proper table service. I've heard of people being charged for a bar snack and a couple of drinks. They're getting a tip for pouring a drink and bringing you some olives and you don't even have a say in it.

With the current trend of no bookings, no tables, time constraints, bar dining etc, the automatic adding of service becomes even more infuriating. The luxury of being able to book a table (yes your own table, not shared with some strangers), ask which table you want, near a window, in a quiet spot, etc, tailoring your experience to perfection, is all part of service. From the moment you pick up the phone you are entering your experience. The relationship between you and the restaurant has begun. You know you can arrive precisely when you have arranged, be led to your table, without fuss, uncomfortable waiting. This to me justifies a bit of the service charge and I find it greedy when these type of casual eateries still expect the same gratuity.

"But they don't get paid enough!" I hear you protest.

The classic argument for tipping is that wait staff's wages are so low, that they need supplementing. What most people don't realise is that their wages are lower because of the tips that they receive. Restaurants actually factor in the extra money received from tips and thus lower the wages. Wikipedia says this.

So, like many things like no reservations and small plates, it is in the interest of the restaurant for customers to tip, and that's why their wages are lower.

In my perfect world, I'd like to see automatic gratuity removed altogether. Unless you are a white linen tablecothed & carpeted temple to service, and I get a waiter catching a dropped napkin before it hits the floor, I find it greedy and arrogant.

But I know this is a tall order, so perhaps drop it in all you restaurants with no-bookings and casual bar style dining - we've just waited in a queue for ages and we're eating at the bar, our elbows bashing the guy next to us. It can be cool and fun, but it's no luxury. If I want to leave a tip I will, but don't take it as a given.


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