One of the big differences between the U.S and Australia is the practice of tipping. Now in Australia, the practice is becoming more prevalent than it used to be but it still not common, so I was quite interested to see how the custom influenced the service I received. These are my thoughts.
Firstly, I managed to get into conversations with some of the waiting staff and they informed me that their official wage, which was paid by the employer, was somewhere in the vicinity of 2-3 dollars an hour. Now look, I know that these people can earn quite a bit in tips, but there is something fundamentally wrong with paying a person that rate in a first world country. For a forty hour week, that equates to an official salary of 80-120 dollars a week. Now I understand that people who work in high end restaurants can earn quite a bit, but its those people in the roadside diners that worry me; in many of those places there didn't seem to be much through traffic.
As far as I was concerned "tipping" was not really an option since if I was unhappy with the service (an inconvenience) the person would have a significant portion of their wages docked. There seemed to be an asymmetry in cost to the waiter in favour of the customer. This would be alright if all customers are reasonable but some are not.
The net result was that a lot of the waiting staff were working quite hard to get that tip and laying on the charm quite thickly; so thickly that it appeared at times contrived, especially when the waiters appeared tired. Staff were quite attentive but once the bill was paid and the money was "extracted", staff sort of disappeared. Something that doesn't seem to happen at home.
Once again, I found the whole experience a bit off-putting in the end. Eating out felt like a simple commercial transaction.(Except in the South) You could never be sure if the waiting staff were being nice to you because they were genuinely nice or that they were being fake in order to earn some cash. I felt that the whole system of tipping compelled the waiting staff them to what we in Australia call, "kiss arse" in order to earn a living. It was a sort of trade-off in dignity for the dollar.
It's one thing to tip a man when he doesn't need it and its another thing to tip him when he does. In the first instance there is no compulsion to give, in the second there isn't as well; and yet there is. In the first instance your giving a man a bonus, which in no material way harms him when he does not get it. In the second, your providing him with his living wage which to a degree is obligatory.
The other issue at play is the independence of the waiter. The customer is not always right, he is not always nice and sometimes can be a pain in arse. The waiter should be able to refuse his business if a certain minimal standard of behaviour is not shown towards him. The whole tipping system subordinates the waiter to the customer. The whole system seems to enforce a subtle attitude of "the man with dollar must be kowtowed to". Subtle, but pernicious.
I understand that many people think that tipping provides an incentive towards superior service but compared to Australia, where the waiters are paid at least a minimum wage ($15.50 an hour), I did not notice any real improvement in the table service.