Tipping: The Point?

150 150 Rob McGibbon

[Another New York re-cap…]

Largely due to work, America is the country I have visited most in my life. More than France, even, although I’m not going to do a precise count up. New York is certainly the foreign city I have visited most. People always say, “But New York’s not America”. I first visited there in 1979 on a family holiday [we even flew first class from Miami] and have been many times since. It has always seemed pretty American to me.

I have a life-long troubled ambivalence towards America. It’s too difficult and multi-layered to explain here. Much of it, I think, is down to watching too many cops’ series and thrillers set in the States at a very young age. Just that unmistakeable prolonged ring of an American telephone triggers a Pavlovian fear in me. I hear it and know that someone, somewhere has been murdered and Columbo will arrive soon. These things stay with you.

As soon as I get through immigration in America I always tip the first 50 people I see. Anyone will do. I give them money for looking at me, for not looking at me, for snarling, for smiling, anything. This helps get me into the groove of giving money away. If only you could pay for your tips in advance, like an entry tax, then it would save all that awkwardness and brain sapping arithmetic.

On this last trip, I think I hit the tipping point with tipping. You can’t do anything these days without hearing about the friggin’ Tipping Point in one business or another, so why not The Tipping Tipping Point? The trouble is, if I grouch about tipping, everyone will simply think I am tight, so this could be a thankless exercise. I don’t believe that I am tight, but I have a growing, very British problem with tipping. And America peels it back to the raw.

In fact, I was brought up TO tip. Generously. When we were flush in the 70’s, my dad told me that tipping showed “style” and he used to scatter pound notes around with reckless abandon. Waiters, petrol pump attendants, doormen, they all got a bung. Such is the legacy of seeing this that I have always been ultra sensitive to tipping and, consequently, I have stylishly given away small fortunes.

As is widely known, Americans in the service industries have a deep suspicion [hate] for the British because we are relatively tight tippers. The expect 15-20%. We’re still locked into the days of 10%, or 12.5% if you are good at maths, which I am not. I noticed in New York this time that many bills have a tip guide for the tight, blind and the British. Fanelli’s, an old traditional bar and burger joint in Soho [Tourismoville. Medium-rude. Good burgers. But don’t bother] has this clear message on their receipts: “SERVICE IS NOT INCLUDED. 15-20% is CUSTOMARY.” They then gave a break down as follows for my $20.30 bill. “15% – $3.05; 18% – $3.66; 20% $4.06.” The excuse you always hear is that you have to tip well in the States because the service is great, but the waiters are poorly paid. Surely, if the wages are so bad, that is an issue for the employer and the staff? Even, the Government.

I have a friend who owns a number of restaurants in London. He is very succcessful and he loves the Service Charge system. He gets to pay his staff the minimum wage, while everyone else picks up the tab to keep them happy. He gets richer and richer quicker.

As a writer, I have never received a tip. No one has ever read a piece and said, “Hey, Rob, that was great, here’s something for your back pocket. Buy yourself some nice new ink or something. Be lucky”

Anyway, I’m starting to whinge. Ugly. Enough.