tipping like a European

Tipping like a European

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Recently, I read something in the local newspaper that caught my attention. It was a proposal to enact a mandatory 5-10% tip for service staff at every restaurant or bar. Of course, the restaurant owners and employees support this proposal wholeheartedly. As one young girl said: “It’d be a good thing if we had guaranteed tips for every customer. If the bill is 10 euro and the tip is 10%, then I get one euro for serving the coffee.” 

As far as I know, serving the coffee is a waiter’s job and in my country, a waiter draws a wage for such an activity. I’ve worked in the service industry, as a waitress, and my salary was nothing to scoff at. A tip was not something I expected nor did I hate the customers if they did not tip. I’ve heard that in some countries, people who don’t tip get sabotaged or humiliated in some ways, by service staff spitting in their coffee or farting on their food. 

Also, why should I, when I am a customer in a public establishment, be obliged to tip someone who is simply doing their job? I don’t get a tip for doing my job. Now, don’t get me wrong. I do tip, but I only do it when I’m really satisfied with the service or when I feel in an exceptionally good mood. But I hate being forced to do things and it’s no different with tips. 

Looking back to the past, we see that the point of tipping was precisely that. In Medieval times, Europeans would tip in taverns when they were exceptionally satisfied with the service. This is still the way in most of Europe. However, things in America are different. Tipping may not be mandatory, but a customer is expected to leave a tip. Even with new technology and people paying with their cards, there is a pop-up window on the pay terminal giving 3 percentage options for tips, somewhere starting with 15% going to 20% and 25%, but in many places starting with 20% and going up to 25% and 30% and a fourth option in very tiny letter saying “no tips”. But even the American practice was different in the past. 

As we said before, tipping began in Europe and consisted in leaving extra change in the case of exceptional service. Around the 1850-60s, rich Americans traveling to Europe discovered this practice. In their eyes, it looked aristocratic and sophisticated, so they took it back with them to America. However, unlike Europeans who’d tip spare change, Americans would tip very large sums. In the beginning, when tipping first came to America, it faced a lot of resistance from the local population. Tipping was considered unamerican, and was considered “a breast cancer on democracy” and a “gross caricature of charity.” Many famous historical figures opposed tipping, including famous millionaires such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. The philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, who opposed tipping, even said “I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, yet it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.” It went so far that three states banned tipping in 1915, but by 1926, these bans were overturned and the trend was unstoppable. 

The start of tipping culture in America is also linked to the conclusion of the Civil War, when many emancipated slaves started looking for work. They’d usually find employment as service workers, waiters, drivers, etc. In these positions, they were not well paid so they depended on the mercy of clients for their income. Of course, this is completely alien from the European way of tipping, which is a small, symbolic gift for an exceptional service, rather than a salary substitute. And so, while it was normal and expected to tip blacks, it became insulting to tip a white worker. 

The biggest change came with Prohibition. Bar and restaurant owners who lost a lot of profit when alcohol was banned started encouraging their staff to be extra polite and solicit tips, so they could pay them less. All of this remains to this day. Service worker pay is very low in America and they’re at the mercy of the customers for what should be their wages. 

For Americans, tipping is probably a normal and natural thing, seeing as how they’re more or less obligated to tip, but for us Europeans and for me in particular, I find it frustrating. Even here in Europe we have places which are tourist traps and will force you into tipping. Every time I make the mistake to enter such a locale, I feel robbed. Recently, I had the misfortune to visit such a restaurant. The weather was cold and rainy and we had been walking, so we quickly went into a bistro. The prices were high, not quite acceptable and when they brought our food over, it was subpar. And on top of that, in the tip, they’d included a 10% tip without asking us. This basically means that regardless of customer satisfaction, these people will get their tip by essentially sneaking it into the bill. I find this very frustrating and I don’t think I’m the only one. Personally, I’d never dream entering that bistro ever again. 

Fundamentally, it comes to a problem of trying to conceal the true prices on the part of bars and restaurants. Instead of paying service staff good wages and then including those costs into the menu prices, thus giving an honest and transparent account of the price for the prospective customers, they sneak these hidden expenses, such as mandatory tipping or service fees into the bill to entice customers which a false, lower price and then surprising them with the true price later, once they’ve already eaten. As far as I’m concerned, this practice constitutes fraud and it’s dishonest at the very least. 

Honest business entails disclosing the true price of sold product, accounting for all the costs of producing it. Anything less is lying to the customers and disrespecting the staff. For my part, I will keep tipping like a European. Tipping should not be a wage substitute, but remain what it has been for centuries, a reward for excellent service. 

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I’ve never liked tipping. I’ve been out of work before so I don’t like giving away money. I’d rather tip a tradesman keeping the electrical grid up and running. Or a welder or a mechanic or a farmer.

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