Sunday, January 29, 2012


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.


Anonymous said...

Tipping will always remain because some waiters/bartenders make out like bandits. If you get a job at the right place it literally could be better then lots of college grad jobs.

Anonymous said...

I'm an American, and I think your perspective is very insightful. I have one minor point of disagreement, though. While it's true that tipped employees may be paid less than the minimum wage, when their take home pay does not add up to the minimum wage their employers are required by federal law (and the law of many states, which have minimum wages higher than the federal one) to make up the difference.

Anonymous said...

I worked my way through university by waiting tables & I made a whole lot more money than any of my friends, who worked part-time at various other jobs.)

Some customers tipped better than others, but there were very few who "stiffed" me, outright.
In fact, the few non-tippers were generally foreigners, often Brits.(I'm Canadian, & there are lots of ex-pat Brits in my city.)
Good service definitely leads to higher doesn't take long for a waitress to learn that!

And although it's true,as you mention,that lower-class establishments result in lower individual tips, it's also true that "poor" establishments provide lower levels of service & the waiters serve larger number of tables & don't have to divide their tips with busboys & bartenders, etc. Besides which, a larger portion of the bills will be paid in cash,rather than Visa .... so waiters can choose not to share their cash tips with the IRS.It's a stressful,busy job & no one does it,except for the fact that it pays better than many other blue collar jobs.

Maybe Australians feel that tipping demeans waiters & believe that waiters' courtesy is insincere.
But honestly, I never felt humiliated or taken advantage of by the tipping system. I always gave the kind of service that I expected to receive, myself, when I went out.
A big smile & an attitude of "the customer is always right" is just part of the job & the better you apply this philosophy, the more money you'll make.

It must be cultural thing.....I have English neighbors who are totally disgusted by Halloween Trick or Treating......They feel it's like sending children out begging!And they say it puts "pressure" on people to buy/give out freebies.
No amount of explaining can change their minds. It's just not part of their tradition & understanding!
(Meanwhile, to a Canadian like myself, handing out candy to costumed kids is fun!)

It's all what you're used to.

Anonymous said...

The tradition or custom of tipping at restaurants is so inefficient and moronic. Just include the acceptable tip 20% in the price already, so that customers can just pay instead of discussing/calculating and wasting time. Not to mention it won't even cause a problem when one has to analyze if the food, ambiance and service all offset the tip.

Asian countries have it right, no wonder they are taking over.

Will S. said...

Interesting musings, Slumlord.

Here in Canada, tipping is as ubiquitous as in the States, but, perhaps because our taxes are higher and we have less money to throw around as a result, we tend to tip less well than Americans; where they may tip as much as 20-25%, we tend to tip 10-15%.

But we have the same thing as America, where employers get to pay a lower minimum wage to servers, than they can for any other industry. It's disgusting, really, when you think about it.

Mike T said...

I think your comment about it feeling just a commercial transaction is a cultural difference. To the vast majority of Americans, that is all we see it as. We expect a waiter or waitress to actually provide service with a smile because that's their job. To us, the authenticity of their smile is no more important than the authenticity of our can-do attitude is to our management in the office.

Ironically, it's actually the elderly and upper middle aged who are likely to make life a pain for the wait staff. Not only are they the most demanding, but they tend to be the cheapest (young men in their 20s-30s tend to be the most generous in general) in terms of tipping. A friend of mine who was a pizza delivery driver right after college, absolutely loathed getting calls from seniors because they would tip him $0.50-$1.00 and then act incredulous when he wasn't enthusiastic about it ($3 is the bare minimum for delivery pizza, and that's only if you are ordering a single pizza).

But then, that is part and parcel of the insanity of our national attitude that the seniors must be coddled. This is despite the fact that, as a group, they are BY FAR the wealthiest segment of society.

The Social Pathologist said...

@Anon 12:57

I'd agree. My simple calculations in some of the busier restaurants led me to the same conclusion. On the otherhand, in some of the quieter places the staff weren't doing very well.

Anon @2:49

Now no one told me that. Thanks.

Anon @ 2:58

It must be cultural thing.

It must be. From my perspective at least, everything in the U.S seems to be tinged with an economic justification. I got the sense that money matters to a degree I've never encountered anywhere else.

Maybe Australians feel that tipping demeans waiters & believe that waiters' courtesy is insincere.

I don't think it demeans waiters as much as I feel it corrupts human social interchange.

The whole idea that you can employ someone at below living wage rates, corrupts the idea of employment. (Which is meant to provide a living wage otherwise it is a pointless exercise)

The second thing is that I don't want people to be extra nice to me because I'm paying them. I expect a certain degree of service from a waiter as a given when entering a particular establishment, just as I do when I pay for services from tradesmen or professionals. Doing their job competently is part and parcel of the advertised price, it's not something "extra".

Thirdly, a gratuity is a non-obligatory payment, which it clearly is in the US. The fact that the waiter relies on the tips for a living income (and the patron knows it) makes any normal person feel obligated to make an non-obligatory payment.

I know I'm being theological here, but tipping legitimises a practice of sub-subsistence employment, it corrupts the meaning of the word gratuity since it clearly socially isn't and finally, it's an extra payment for what should be routine services.

It would be far more honest to call it a service charge. Whilst in the U.S I simply added somewhere between 15-20% on top of my bill as a routine. (the determination being based on what notes where in my wallet and the desire to avoid change).

Mike T said...

I don't know how it works in Australia, but the way delivery pizza drivers get paid is a service fee of about 10-15% of the order plus tip. However, they have to cover gas and expenses which is a big expense so tipping must be more generous.

Anonymous said...

Not all states in the US pay the 2-3$/hr base wage. Some allow servers to receive minimum wage (usually that state's higher than federal minimum wage) plus tips, which is a great deal if you can get it.

There is a wide regional variation on how waitstaff are paid and I haven't even brought in tip pooling, which is another way income is smoothed out and varies both by region and restaurant practice.

Worth noting though, that service is far worse where the waiters are guaranteed a minimum wage above the federal one, in my experience. Like not having utensils or plates set or available, or remembering to send in your food order. Not 'they didn't smile enough'.

Anonymous said...

I have resisted commenting on your 'trip-to-America' posts until now. You seem to place great weight on your ability to discern generalizable facts as well other people's internal states of mind based on your own personal observations.

Two examples: your inital observation that everybody looked tired when you arrived at the airport (wow, people at an airport looked tired-what a unique circumstance); second, that the 'charm ' of the wait staff was 'contrived' because of the pressure for tips.

The obvious conclusion from your musings are that they are much more reflective of your own pre-conceptions and biases than they are of any of the people you have met.
Oh yeah, the wait staff 'sort of disappear' after the bill is paid because they assumme you are bloody-well done!

The Social Pathologist said...

Anon @6:23am

The obvious conclusion from your musings are that they are much more reflective of your own pre-conceptions and biases than they are of any of the people you have met.

You're projecting.

I wasn't even sure if I wanted to do these posts as I expected to get reactions like yours. I thought to myself, "What's the point, because so many people will attribute prejudice to my views and no amount of justification will satisfy them'.
I am not going to attempt to justify myself now.

Quite frankly, I'm not interested in your opinion of me. What I'm interested in is conveying my impression of the U.S., especially to young thinking conservative types, and to mainly get them travelling outside the U.S. to see how other people live.

During my trip to the U.S. the people that most came to my mind were Roissy and Roosh V. I felt that Roissy's critiques of the U.S were remarkably accurate( I felt that he was being far too harsh beforehand), and Roosh V, who's travels seem to have given him a different perspective on life in general. Something he couldn't of done if he had not left.

A man can both see the strengths and weaknesses of his country only in comparison to an other. This, of course, presumes he is not a "teflon tourist" where the cultural experience totally eludes him. Americans get a lot of criticism, a lot of it unformed and malicious. Still, some of the criticisms are valid, but when coming from an outsider such as myself will instinctively be interpreted as hostile and un-objective. Therefore the best objective arguments, both for and against America, are when Americans travel and personally experience the rest of the world.

Holst said...

Tipping is one of the oldest, hoariest 'internet topics,' but this post was interesting, and the observations of some merit. As an American who has traveled personally in Latin America and Europe, I think the differences from small cultural facets like tipping are dwarfed by relative differences in racial diversity and sense of community. The US's racial diversity is increasing, and its communities are being rapidly destroyed, though at a slower rate in the South and interior West. Those two factors really wear down the gears of a pleasant society.

I have never been myself to Australia, but have two good British and South African friends who have; they did not like service in hotels/restaurants there. From their standpoint it seemed that the staff lorded it over customers and that there was generally a strong 'tall poppy syndrome.'

The Social Pathologist said...


From their standpoint it seemed that the staff lorded it over customers and that there was generally a strong 'tall poppy syndrome.'

Personally I've never experienced it, (the waiting staff thing) but your correct in stating that Australia has quite a "tall poppy" syndrome.

The US's racial diversity is increasing, and its communities are being rapidly destroyed, though at a slower rate in the South and interior West

You know, I just sometimes wonder if the very idea of America, the idea that a man can live as he pleases without fear of persecution is one of the solvents of the U.S and the West. Multiculturalism (even within the same race) is the natural consequence of the American idea. I think America was "stable" more by happy coincidence than design.

For there to be community there must be commonality. America achieved that commonality when the people were still Christian and other races were excluded from its public life. I mean, for long time liberty only applied to white men and America had a policy of excluding immigrants from non European countries. This would seem in violation to the spirit of liberty and the idea of the equality of man. The founding principles on which America was based.

This "racism" severed to preserve at least a degree of commonality (which even then was tested) around which a society could be formed. It was successfully overturned by appealing to the very principles upon which America was founded, and hence, America lived up to its ideal as a refuge of liberty for people of all nations and races. America is constitutionally multicultural.

The question then is, "Can a multicultural society survive as a unity?" If we look at the historical record of nations then there is very little to be optimistic about.

Black Death said...

I'm an American, but I've visited Australia and New Zealand. I like the no-tipping system better.

furrin ways said...

I think most Americans just look at it as your hiring the Waiter and you pay him not the restuarant. Having worked in American restuarants the waiters make the best money out of anyone excepting management (and sometimes if the management job is more of a stepping stone type position not even then). Anyway if you discarded the custom the wait staff would take a paycut (some restuarants in the U.S.have no tipping policies you make around the minimum wage)and as the public face of the company you would still be expected to "kiss ass", But that kind of phony friendlyness keeps things polite while establishing some bounderies for the wait staff (think a young waitress serving a bachelor regular it keeps mixed signles down exc.). Tip or no their will always be demanding customers and waiting on them for tips as rule pays better than being a clerk in a store or other entry level work with the public type positions.