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.’