The Tip Economy

Celebrating the sale of our previous apartment, The Wife and I had dinner at a restaurant yesterday. It was a mid-range price place — not shawarma cheap, not Noma expensive. We were seated and I had a look at the menu. Everything looked good, so when the waiter came, I asked if he could recommend me something. I was surprised to get a snarky response back, as though my indecision not only annoying but offensive.

I like to ask the waiter for recommendations. I have flexible tastebuds, so I can eat and enjoy the weirdest of meals, and when I go to a restaurant I like to eat something new. I’ve had great success with this strategy during my US travels earlier this year. The waiters have been almost universally accommodating, and my inquiries met with the opposite reaction to the Danish waiter. After all, who better to know what’s good than those that serve the menu on a daily basis.

Denmark is not big on tips. For example, tips are already included in taxi-cab fares, so you’re not expected to give extra. Dinners at restaurants are marked up so that even if you don’t give a tip, no-one will look at you with an evil eye (though you are thanked for an extra tip). In fact, you could live a perfectly normal, not-frowned-upon, life in Denmark, not ever giving anyone a tip.

Let me be clear, I do tip when I’m at restaurants. 10% universally, which due to the already marked up prices is a good tip. When I’m in the US I always ask the locals what the comme il faut for tipping is, and I tip the highest percentage I’m told, usually 20%. I tip the Starbucks lady, I tip the taxi driver, I tip the waitress. I do this because I’m told the US is a tip economy, that wages in many walks of the US life are based on the generosity of the clientele. Minimum wage might be viable simply by virtue of the tip. I suppose the master plan of this system is to reward great service with great tips and not so great service with a not so great or no tip at all.

I’ve never been a fan of this system, not because great service doesn’t deserve a good tip, but because I feel it adds a needless amount of complexity to life. And it feels like an institutional form of reward and punishment, on both sides of the fence. Instead of explaining to your Starbucks-barista-with-an-attitude that in fact everyone has bad days but that’s no reason to let it out on you, you just omit the tip. Instead of the tip being the icing on the cake, something you give for extraordinary service, the tip is expected and not giving a tip becomes a negative signal.

On the other hand, I can’t recall having received anything but great service during american adventures, and yesterday I do wish my missing tip would’ve said “hey, dear waiter, next time I ask for a recommendation, please don’t look at me like I peed in your pool”.

6 thoughts on “The Tip Economy”

  1. Lloyd Budd says:

    A few times I’ve written in a polite tip on the bill about the opportunity for better service or food.

  2. It has always bothered me that waiters and waitresses in the US can be paid so pitifully little because they are tipped. Tips are not mandatory and yet you can’t help but feel bad for the poor waitress that has to depend on them to make a living.

  3. Michael says:

    It also saddens me to watch people at restaurants here get tips, then get taxed on them too. the whole system here is suspect imho, because they are getting paid too little.

    Having said that, it is truly nice to have a waiter or waitress that seems to give a crap. I had dinner last night with another and the waitress couldn’t be nicer. The funny thing was that tip WAS included in the price. 16% standard. she even pointed it out on the bill (so I wouldn’t double tip) (it was on the menu too). There is definitely a culture of “service with a smile” here that goes beyond the tip too.

    still I think though if I had had a bad experience there, I might have said something about the standard tip already included…

  4. Joen says:

    It does feel like something is off in the tip economy here and there, but I’m sure it’s impossible to generalize. The teensy suggestion for improvement, whether it be in person or on a note, seems like the cool thing to do. Making mental note.

  5. Chelsea says:

    I always tip, even when the service isn’t great. Its more out of habit than actual appreciation. I forgot once (I always write it in on the receipt, but that time I used cash) and a woman came running out of the restaurant and chased me down with a scowl on her face.

    I wish I didn’t have the extra thing to remember and calculate and instead people in the service industry got paid reasonable wages.

    Thereas a great book called Nickle and Dimed about a journalist who worked minimum wage jobs just to see if she could survive:

    http://www.amazon.com/Nickel-Dimed-Not-Getting-America/dp/0805063897

    When she was a waitress, her hourly wage was below minimum wage, as they expected the tips to make up the difference. She only got paid more if her tips didn’t make up the difference (ie, if her wage + tips at the end of the day wasn’t minimum wage, they paid her the difference up to minimum wage).

    1. Joen says:

      I wish I didn’t have the extra thing to remember and calculate and instead people in the service industry got paid reasonable wages.

      Right with you there. If you received bad service, you could still leave a note.

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