The Tipping Point

Food for thought, in a well-argued article on Slate Magazine this week…

Tipping is an Abomination

Despite the rather dramatic headline, this article offers an interesting perspective on the whole concept of tipping for service in restaurants in the US.

Personally, I am a fan of service compris (service cost included in the menu prices, or sometimes at the end of the bill) – a concept found in some countries in Europe (France, Germany, Switzerland, and some parts of Italy, in my experience). It takes away the arbitrariness of tipping, and assures that the wait person gets paid for the work they did. So they didn’t do such a great job? Then don’t go back. And let the Manager know why you won’t be returning. This is a lot more humane than stiffing a wait person making less than minimum wage in the US.

Service compris is not a lot different than the 15 – 20% automatically added to the bill for groups at many restaurants in North America, which assures that the wait person(s), who may have devoted a huge part of their shift to serving that table, get paid.

Oh, and I once got scammed at the Olive Garden bar in Times Square – where they added an automatic tip to our bar bill (not a large group – just four of us). Never having seen this anywhere in my travels in the US, I didn’t expect it at a restaurant chain, and I didn’t read the line items, so I tipped over top of that. To add insult to injury, the service had not been good, and that server made 30% off of us. Note to self: review bills more carefully ;^)

Wait staff at European restaurants apparently make a decent living under the service compris model (it probably helps that these countries all have national health care ;^) – and being a wait person in a fine restaurant is considered a respectable career. Service doesn’t seem to suffer under this model – a good server gets more and better shifts, advancements etc, and a poor server will lose their job. A tip can be added for outstanding service, but is not expected. Ten percent in these countries is considered extremely generous and would only be for a fine dining experience with excellent service. Otherwise, it’s a couple of Euro, max – and often just a rounded up number. This is the way the locals do it…

The 15-20% expected now in North America (even for marginal service) seems pretty crazy by comparison, and I don’t see it as an incentive for good service, because it is expected, and most people will tip at this rate, even for poor service – which then only serves to perpetuate it. Btw, paying servers less than minimum wage doesn’t happen in Canada – that is a pretty tough way to go, and I am very surprised it is legal in the US.

This article also hints at differences between races in the US and their tipping tendencies, which makes for inconsistent service and possible overt racism by wait staff. Add to that the widely diverse tipping practices of different nationalities, and the whole tipping culture thing is a big mess in North America, and elsewhere.

Tipping practices on live aboard boats, in fact any dive boat, are also a hot topic. A boatload of Russian, British, German, Swiss, Australian, Asian, etc, etc divers may leave absolutely nothing in the way of tips for the crew, as tipping is not a cultural practice for them, and often not a practice in the country they are visiting. The crew’s livelihood, as I understand it, pretty much depends on tips, as they are paid low wages for their work.

I was on a trip a few years back on a luxury live aboard in the South Pacific, which had a good crew. All of the North American passengers left a generous tip, as we always do, due to crew expectations that North American passengers will be generous. We are talking several hundreds of dollars per person – the tip being based on a percentage of the total cost of the trip – something else I’d like to debate – because, really? we are tipping a percentage based on the whole enchilada – fuel, provisioning, administrative, marketing, profit margin, etc, etc, and not just on the service portion of it? This does not make sense to me, but, again, we go along with the practice, because it is expected, and because we know the crew depends on this income.

One of the passengers, a Brit, was a well-traveled diver, with apparently no shortage of funds, but she announced that she doesn’t believe in tipping crews, and so she stiffed them. Much as I dislike the tipping culture and expectation on live aboards, I don’t think that this is a fair way to protest the practice.

Personally, I think, like restaurants, the boats should pay their crews a living wage, incorporate that into the price of the trip, and stop leaving wages of their staff dependant on tips, which are so open to the vagaries of different nationalities and individuals. This doesn’t mean people won’t tip for great service – just that the income level of the crew will remain steady and predictable, with any tips being an added bonus.

And I also resent the idea that, after paying several thousand dollars, per person, for a trip, that we need to then pay the crew, via an arbitrary tip, at the end of the journey. It’s cheeky methinks…

About Judy G Diver

Born and raised on the west coast of Canada, I have always felt a strong connection to the sea. But for many years, I stayed on the surface, afraid of what lurked down deep. When I was in my early 30's, with three young children (aka the P's), my husband (aka Mr G) signed us up for a SCUBA certification course, as a surprise. Although I had my fears, my stubbornness prevailed, and somehow I made it through four murky, frigid, cold water dives in Vancouver to successfully pass the course. Soon after we went diving off the west coast of Mexico, in the Sea of Cortez, where my eyes were opened to the beauty and other-worldliness of the life down under. And the rest, as they say, is history. I currently have well over 2000 dives under the belt, and I have been fortunate to travel extensively in Asia, Australia, Fiji, Galapagos, Costa Rica, California, the Caribbean, Mexico and here in British Columbia. After shooting hefty DSLRs for many years, I just switched over to a groovy Olympus Micro Four Thirds camera, in a Nauticam housing, with dual Sea & Sea strobes and a bag full of lenses. In addition to this blog and my personal website (Awoosh.com/Directory), which is linked at the top of the blog, my stuff has been widely published in a variety of magazines and websites, including an ongoing regular monthly feature on Scubadiving.com. All links to this work can be found in this blog.
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2 Responses to The Tipping Point

  1. FinnLady says:

    I’ve seen both systems. I moved from the USA to Europe, a country where you pretty much never tip for anything. Having lived with both systems I completely agree that it’s hugely easier and better all around when you don’t tip separately. The staff should get a fair wage and the business will do well or not depending on the quality of the service. There will also be no stealing tips, stiffing good wait staff or failure to report taxable income.
    On the 1 liveaboard trip I’ve made the company arranging the trip made it clear that a tip was a part of the expense and what a normal tip would be. Our company rep collected the tip money to be distributed and everyone was free to give extra tips directly to staff if they so desired. Also a good system: these folks need and deserve this income. I suspect that if someone had refused to pay the tip our rep would have covered the loss and remembered the persona non grata for next time they were filling a boat for a trip 😉 The company wants to maintain their own reputation as a desirable customer so they will keep an eye on who they take on as customers – and it makes a nicer dive trip for everyone from divers to deckhands. That’s good business.

  2. Judy G says:

    Hi Finnlady,

    Interesting that the tip was presented as “non-optional” – but then, I am thinking, why is it not included in the price of the trip up front? To tack on a 15% “tip” seems a bit disingenuous to me – and does not allow passengers who are unhappy with the crew’s performance or overall quality of their trip to leave less.

    And interestingly, a similar kind of model to live aboards is the all-inclusive holiday. I don’t know of anyone who would consider that leaving a 15% – 20% tip of the total cost of the trip, for the staff, would be reasonable or expected. Instead, many apparently don’t tip at all. At large resorts, we tend to generously tip wait staff and housekeepers, individually, who took good care of us. At small resorts, we leave a gratuity at the front desk. I have had some doubts at a few locations that the nice tip at the front desk ever gets handed on to the staff.

    I think it is a shame that the live aboard companies (at least the ones I’ve gone with) have modelled the remuneration for the crew based on tips. I think it would be much fairer to pay them a decent wage. This doesn’t mean they won’t or shouldn’t get tips, but passengers shouldn’t feel the need to leave $500 – $750 per person on a $3500 trip, which is what the current expectation seems to be.

    And I can totally see why other nationalities would not leave huge tips on live aboards – it is not their culture, it is not the culture in Indonesia, Galapagos, or Thailand (where I have done most of my live aboards), nor of many of the crew members. It is really a North American thing, that in my opinion, has really gotten out of hand.

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