America's tipping culture is out of control – why should visitors be forced to reward bad service?
'When the tip is a done-deal before you’ve made eye contact... it can feel begrudged'
"Tipping is not optional.” My heart sank a little as I read the section on gratuities in my guide to New York.
I was towards the tail end of a six-day trip to the Big Apple and regretted not consulting the guide earlier.
Obviously I knew the loose principles of the culture across the Pond - tip plenty and tip often - but I had not made a thorough reckoning with a process that makes our own systems look tighter than Scrooge at Christmas.
Bartenders and waiters, I know. Then there’s taxi drivers, bellhops, baristas, concierges, hotel maids, tour guides, bouncers, buskers, the bloke at the hotdog stand. Each deserves, according to the way of life in the Five Boroughs and beyond, additional remuneration for their services, ranging from a dollar per drink (for just opening my beer?!) to 30 per cent of final bill.
I love tipping at home, in London, when the amount you leave is fully representative of the quality of the service you have received.
When a waiter is friendly, alert and takes a keen interest in your evening they deserve to be thanked financially. Like presents, leaving a tip should be as enjoyable as receiving one.
But when the tip is a done-deal before you’ve so much as made eye contact, then a gratuity - no matter how small - can feel begrudged.
I understand that minimum wage is lower in the States, and tips used to top up pay in the service industry, but New York is not cheap, and when a pint is $8/€6.90 before tax, someone somewhere is making a lot of money.
By the end of 2018, the minimum wage for a tipped worker in New York will be $12.50/€10.80, so just short of the Irish living wage of €11.70, and the London living wage of £10.20/€11.65 - “tip credits” in lieu of a cash wage can be used by employers to top up pay, but to a limit.
Perhaps it is against the laissez-faire blood that runs through the veins of American economic philosophy, but I would fully support the introduction of a Manhattan living wage that could do away with the pressure of tipping staff left, right and centre for every visit to the bar. The current system is rotten.
The monetary expense of New York’s tipping culture is not the sole reason of my opposition - I’m more than happy to reward good service - it is the obligation.
On more than several occasions across a trip that entailed more than a dozen dining experiences, the service was below average - surly, disinterested and slapdash - yet because of the culture, I still felt obliged to tip 20 per cent.
In one case, where the service was no better than fair, a gratuity was already added to the bill, but on paying the waitress thrust an iPad in my face with the tipping options available. Across the screen were three boxes, the first with 18 per cent and below a translation in terms of quality of service “average”, second 20 per cent “good”, and finally 22 per cent “excellent”.
A smaller box in the bottom-hand corner offered “no tip”, but so panicked and conditioned was I to tip I gave her another 20 per cent. Two rounds of drinks that would have cost around €45 ended up costing €68.
I’m curious as to whether the service industry in the city has considered that such a system is off-putting to foreign tourists.
Further confusing matters is the practice, used in many restaurants and bars, of first asking customers to pay for their food and drink, and then asking them - once the card transaction has been completed - to write down their tip on the receipt. Only later will the restaurant take the gratiuity.
The balance of my Monzo card has fallen three times since arriving home as my New York tips trickled out. Is this the simplest way?
There are also, of course, moments of awkward confusion. One hotel receptionist stored my bags as it was too early to check in. They were popped behind a door within arm’s reach from the desk. When I returned I grabbed them myself, but was I meant to tip?
God knows. I didn’t. But did I upset him?
It is also, apparently, the done thing to tip maids when you leave for the morning, up to $5 (€4.30) a day. What are you paying the hotel for? I resent the idea that, having shelled out for a room, you’ll be regarded as stingy for not then paying the hotel’s staff. Will my turndown lack lustre? Will they forget to leave a chocolate on the pillow?
In a cashless society, the process of gratuities has become further complicated, which is why more and more shops have tablets with the aforementioned options, but should I tip 20 per cent to the student who made me a $4 flat white?
I understand I’ll be accused of being a stingy, miserly grump for this, but after reading the tipping recommendations I broke out in a cold sweat for all those I had wronged, and felt anxious knowing that in the next 24 hours I would come against plenty more situations I was not culturally equipped for.
Please, for the love of travel, America, just pay your staff more so we can be done with the tiring, confusing and stressful charade of constant tipping.
I know many visitors will appreciate it.