Tipping is not a town in China

Tipping is often a contentious issue and regardless of what people tell you, there is no standard rule.

Everyone likes some measure of appreciation for what they do, whether it’s praise,  a pat on the back, a thank you or a fiver in your pocket; it’s all appreciated. Now I’ve spent time travelling in North America, Europe and Australia but not so much in Asia or Africa. I’ve been to every country in Europe except the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden or Iceland. One thing I’ve learned is there is no country where people don’t tip. The only difference is the frequency and quantity, tipped.

Equally, through my experience both as a consumer and a service industry worker, whether as a bartender or a waiter, I know of no hard and fast rule as far as tipping is concerned although I do know there are some people who tip and some who don’t.

I always try to tip someone and I work on a simple measure of 10%, as a base and then, based on the level or quality of service delivered, I might pay over the odds. That’s pretty much a standard with people who work or have worked in the service industry; they know what it’s like.

On the other hand, I’ve often railed against the practice in the United States, in particular, where tipping is a required imperative and measured in precise mathematical terms, somewhere between 15 and 20%. Now, as a waiter and bartender, part of me wishes this was standard practice in Ireland, too but what I rail against is the absence of any discretionary choice for the consumer; it’s pay the money, regardless.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I understand the mechanics of the argument. In the United States, service industry workers are paid minimum wage and the bulk of their income derives from tips or gratuities. In addition, the often tightly structured work chain involves a maitre-d’, waiters, busboys and kitchen staff and while the maitre-d’ might be seen to pocket the big dough, he or she will have the others in the chain to look after, too. So the waiter looks after the busboys and someone might throw something in for the kitchen staff along the way.

In Ireland, even if you’re working at minimum wage, it is, arguably, a living wage but that doesn’t exclude tipping. Ask anyone in the Irish service industry and they’ll tell you their life would be a whole lot harder if they weren’t getting tips. It’s a whole lot harder to maintain a pleasant demeanour and a welcoming smile if you don’t feel your work is being appreciated. It’s a whole lot harder to maintain and deliver the type of service you’d like to get yourself, if all you can look forward to is a sullen shrug and an empty pocket.

And ask anyone in the service industry if they’ve ever heard a tourist tell them they were told not to tip in Ireland. Now that’ll open a rage of fury because that instruction or advice is given to visitors. I’ve even heard people, Irish people, tell visitors that, right in front of me, as though they’re imparting some magnificent insight of arcane knowledge about Ireland of the Welcomes. These same people are usually those who will regale their new found tourist friends with cringe inducing broguery while slugging back the drinks their bought, as though they’re monkeys getting fed with nuts at the zoo.

While there is no hard and fast rule, some nationalities tip better than others. Irish people, I find, are good tippers when they get good service. Not all of them, of course, some Irish people never tip but I remember, as a child on family holidays, how my father would slip a coin, with surreptitious dexterity, into the hands of a grateful waiter. Strangely, southern Europeans, particularly Spanish and Italians, are notoriously bad tippers. The French don’t tip. Germans do tip but rarely, generously. The English, as a general rule, do tip and often tip well. When I worked in London pubs in the 1970s, many customers liked to ‘buy’ the bartender a drink. This often happens in Ireland, too. Of course, as the staff cannot drink on duty, it is customary to say, ‘thanks, I’ll have it when I finish work’ and then pocket the price of the drink. Canadians don’t tip, as a general rule and Australians are the same. Americans do tip and tip well.

Having said that, I’ve been tipped well by French, Spanish, Italian, German, Canadian and Australian customers. I’ve had parties of Americans spend as much as €174, hand me €175 and wait for the €1 change. This latter happens more regularly than you might suppose or imagine.

Visitors often ask me what is the tipping protocol in Ireland? and I give them the same answer, every time. I tell them to ask if there is a ‘service charge’ on their bill. Service charges are often added to bills – anything between 10 and 12½% – that never see their way into the pockets of the service employee. If there isn’t a service charge, then use 10% as a jump off point and then measure the level of service you’ve received – attentiveness, speed and standard of delivery, demeanour etc – and pay more, at your discretion. If a customer asks me if there’s a tipping policy related to where I work, I tell them there is no service and that tipping, while entirely at the discretion of the customer, is greatly appreciated. The trick, I’ve found, is expect nothing so you’re never surprised.

A young couple sat together in the place where I work. They ordered a pint of Guinness and a glass of wine. As the evening progressed, I paid occasional visits to their table when I spotted their drinks depleting to a point where a refill might be in order. They were deep in conversation and we engaged in some banter. They drank three more rounds and appeared merrily on the bright side of tipsy when they asked for their bill, which amounted to €45.60. I left them to count it out and returned later to scoop a pile of assorted notes and coins from the table. It amounted to €58.60, so I returned to them with their change, assuming they may, in their tipsiness and unfamiliarity with the currency – they were both English – have made a mistake.

‘No such thing,’ they told me, smiling, ‘that’s all for you and thank you.’

Annoying things people ask in bars…

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Mindful that barwork is a service industry, then ‘service’ is the business of the bar employee. That said, there are other criteria or ingredients, that make good service, not only possible, but a pleasure, to give and receive.

Good manners, consideration, respect and logic are four that spring to mind, immediately. Personally, good grammar and diction are required, too.

Any bar worker will tell you, when asked, a list of things they get asked, that customers do or say, every day and night, in every bar in the world. Not all of these things are, by any means, offensive or irritating, but some are.

So I’ve made a casual list, derived from conversations with bar workers in several Dublin bars.

But first, I own personal bugbears, creeping Americanisms.

The American version of the English language has crept into our lives and daily argot through film and television and these days, by even more common inference, through the internet and YouTube.

But when people persist in prefacing their request for a drink with ‘can I get…?’, my immediate reaction is ‘no, you can’t, because y’see, that’s why I’m here…to ‘get’ it for you. On the other hand, if you ask me, ‘may I have?, then all becomes clear and order, proper English and good grammar is restored.

The other ‘Americanism’ that has taken a niche in Irish conversation occurs when a customer is asked, when their glass or their plate is almost empty, ‘may I get you another or something else? is ‘I’m good.’ What does that mean, for God’s sake? I haven’t made any inquiry regarding your moral disposition, so why tell me if you’re good? Like I care?

But that’s me. I’m a writer. So, shoot me.

But here’s another few of those nonsense irritations:

abbreviations, like cabsav (Cabernet Sauvignon), or heino (Heineken) or what about ‘sauvignon blanc white wine’, eh?

Then there’s the customer who saunters in and orders ‘a pint.’ Well, a pint of what, exactly? Sure, there was a time, now almost forgotten, when a pint, meant a pint of stout and the other three taps in a pub, lager, ale or cider, were the secondary alternatives. Now most pubs have multiple choices in stouts, ales, lagers, even ciders and wheat beers. So think specific or ask advice, it helps and everyone’s willing to help, if you ask.

Then there are the drinkers of a particular American beer (Coors) who assume, when you name the brand, you will know exactly what they want. Unfortunately, ESP (extra sensory perception) is no longer a requirement for bartenders, although, in the case of a good customer and an experienced bartender, it can be a useful asset.

I worked in a bar, once, where the oldest member of staff was close to retirement age and most of the customers were a third of his age. He was, not to understate this, intolerant and fools, in his mind, would never be suffered, gladly or otherwise. So when an unsuspecting misfortunate approached the bar and asked for ‘a Guinness’, he got our man’s gimlet eye and question, barked, ‘d’ye want a pint, glass or a bottle, I’m not a fucking prophet, y’know?’

So I caution those who ask for a beer to be specific, in quantity and product, ‘a Coors’ can mean a bottle, a pint or a glass.

And that brings me then to every bartender’s greatest bugbear, an English customer. Don’t get me wrong, this is nothing against English people, per se. It’s just that their bar rules are very different to ours. Having worked for years in English bars, I have first hand knowledge of their drink ordering technique. First, they order one drink at a time.

Now that’s just wrong, especially to an Irish bartender. We have memories and we pride ourselves on our ability to remember long, complex orders and to deliver the drink in the most efficient manner possible, given that knowledge. So, please, don’t order a drink at a time and, above all, never end your order with ‘and a pint (or multiple pints) of Guinness.’

And finally, while saying this list is by no means conclusive, let me add just two more caveats. There is a saying, ‘it’s nice to be nice’ and a ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ can go a long way. Most bartenders remember a customer by their drink but a small gesture of recognition and respect with a gracious request and a word of gratitude, will lay a ground mark that will be remembered and reciprocated.

Which brings me, neatly, to my final bugbear, the customer who demands that you ‘smile.’ Why? because you’ve bought that with your drink? I don’t think so. I do believe and agree that a happy, smiling bartender can make your visit to a bar more interesting and make the whole experience more pleasurable, for all concerned. But since you don’t know the circumstances of the frown or grimace, why interfere with an inane and insensitive demand that they ‘smile.’ Give them a reason, tell a joke, give them a tip, say please, smile at them first, say hello.

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