Time & mind & tipping

By Razib Khan | June 17, 2010 2:10 pm

I just got back from a European trip, and I have to say I did not miss tipping. I especially appreciated not having to do the song & dance typical of larger groups in sit-down restaurants in the USA where you figure out how much you’re going to tip on a communal basis, when everyone has different tipping set points and perceptions of service and such. The money is less of an issue than the extra wasted time at the end of a meal & drinks which are spent on the terms of calculation rather than more conventional conviviality. In fact now that I think about it way too much time in my life has been spent discussing the etiquette of tipping, often outside of a situation where people are going to have to tip imminently. I thought about this after seeing this post in The Atlantic on tipping. One correspondent observes:

I lived in Japan for a while. There is no tipping there, and it works great. If we could be like Japan, I’d be all for it. However, I don’t think we’d be like Japan. Anytime I have ever eaten somewhere that does not practice tipping, service has been abysmal. Customers herded through like cattle, dishes brought out late, then diners rushed through them, eyes rolled, etc. We just do not have the service culture that would allow us to disconnect pay from performance and continue to expect the same kind of service.

The point about national culture is well taken. I experienced some bad service in Italy and Finland, but the quality of badness was very different, in keeping what with you’d expect from the respective national cultures (though in general I experienced service as good as in the states in both places).* But the empirical observation about American restaurants without tipping having lesser service suffers from sampling bias. Establishments which don’t have tipping are generally lower-end, verging on cafeterias. So it’s not an apples to apples comparison. A better one would be looking at higher end restaurants which have mandatory gratuities for large groups vs. those which do not. Even here you have the peculiar distortion of the larger group, which can often be more difficult for a server to manage.

Of course one’s perspective on this probably varies by the amount of disposable income one has. If you don’t have much disposable income the small but repeated investments of time & energy which go into tipping might be worthwhile if you can manage to pay less than you would otherwise. If you have a fair amount of disposable income the marginal potential savings introduced by greater price variation which you can control at the cost of time & energy needed may not be worth it.

* I had to bargain very hard with a Finnish server on whether I could handle Indian levels of spiciness. This was obviously a well rehearsed conversation on her part, but I thought she should have updated her priors in my case. The lighting was dim, but not that dim. Usually American servers at Indian restaurants aren’t too resistant when I assert I can handle high levels of spice.


Comments (6)

  1. bioIgnoramus

    “I just got back from a European trip, and I have to say I did not miss tipping.” Golly, is there now a uniform European tipping habit? How did that come in while my back was turned?

  2. Keith Harwood

    Tipping is rare and seldom expected here in Australia and yet service at a fairly decent restaurant is almost invariably good. The reason is that the wages for people who serve at such restaurants is sufficient that they can afford to patronise similar restaurants themselves and thus see it from both sides. (By `fairly decent’ I mean “Have you a reservation. I’ll show you to your table. Menu, Wine list. Are you ready to order? Would Sir care to taste the wine?” and so on.)

  3. toto

    In France, you’re “socially expected” to tip. It’s just more of a small, semi-fixed amount. Something like a 2 euros tip for a table of several people with drinks, coffee and digestif is seen as generous. Less than fifty cents is seen as scroungy if you look like an adult professional.

    So please, do drop the coins. My former, semi-starving, order-taking, dishes-carrying, table-cleaning self retrospectively thanks you.

    That new picture of you looks a lot like Southern Europe (orange roofs on small houses). Italy? Southern France?

  4. I lived in Japan for years. The service is pretty uniformly bad, except in two situations.

    The first, at pricey high level places, is excellent, if very formal. The second is at places where the owner is also the waiter. These folks are almost uniformly friendly and great talkers, joking and conversing with the customers.

    At normal restaurants, the service just sucks. The waitresses (usually female) are bored and unmotivated. With no tipping they have no reason to hurry to help, suggest items, top up coffee and everything you expect a good waitress to do.

    Around the world, in many countries I have visited, I find this pattern. In Europe, I found the service mostly poor, with occasional exceptions, but I was too poor then to go to more expensive restaurants.

  5. pconroy

    Here in NYC, the worst service I consistently have had is at Polish/Ukrainian restaurant in the East Village, by FOB Polish and Ukrainian waitresses, who just don’t understand “service” or heaven forfend “service with a smile”… yet still expect to be tipped. A holdover from the Communist thinking I expect.

    Abroad, the worst service I’ve had was in a restaurant in Dublin’s Temple Bar area – a boho area in the center of the city, and huge tourist mecca – where I was one of only 2 couples present, was served my meal, but had no fork, and requested one – and no other tables set, where I could have grabbed a fork for myself – and 3 Irish waitresses chatted on and on at the bar, and I had to make 3 requests for a fork, including asking to speak to the manager, before I got one 25 minutes later – now with a plate of cold food. There is no tipping in Ireland.

    So, I’m all in favor of tipping. Also, after food quality, I put a premium on good service – before decor or location – so have no problem tipping well.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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