Why Europeans Hate Tipping

August 13th, 2010 at 2:53 pm | 28 Comments |

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For the past three weeks, pilule my Italian friend, ampoule L, has been visiting. It has been an experience, to say the least – especially given that, until now, he had never been to the United States.

L is well traveled, but he has “never seen anything like this”: the fleet of sunrise joggers that nearly stampede him every morning, the over-priced (but air conditioned!) D.C. Metrorail, the enormous portion sizes and the free refills … Virtually everything is an exciting novelty and he couldn’t be more starry-eyed or visibly thrilled to be here – well, except for when the bill comes at the restaurant.

Albeit, no one is ever excited about dolling out 15 bucks for a burger, but with L, it is a bona fide ordeal.

“Why does the total not include the tax? We have to pay the tax anyhow, so why say total in the first place? It’s like some mean trick, ‘Hah! You thought your burger was only $15… gotcha!”

His indignant reaction to the “fake total” is only the tip of the iceberg … so to speak…

Most of the meals we’ve eaten out have involved me having to explain at length the concept of a tip, usually resulting in a lengthy explanation of waiters working primarily for tips due to their being paid minimum wage, thereby necessitating a brief overview of the roots of capitalism and consumerism, incentivizing workers to do their best, etc., to which he replies: “They chose to be waiters. They chose to work for minimum wage. If they want more money, get a higher paying job – don’t expect me to tip you because you were nice and speedy. That’s your job.”

The first time L countered my ‘it’s the capitalist tradition to tip’ argument with the above rebuttal, I was floored.  Despite growing up in Italy – a country whose political culture is much more left-leaning with an enduring communist presence – he was clearly advocating a very capitalist, open job market in which unsatisfied workers are free to seek alternative employment.  “No one is forcing them to wait tables. Go work at Starbucks or something,” he said.

My argument for leaving a 15-20% tip (depending on how nice and speedy the service was) has henceforth been reduced to a stern, simple, “Look, it’s just the way we do things here. You have to tack on an extra $3.25 to that $15 total. Sorry.”  L always relents, but not without muttering about it being “so much better in Italy,” where tax and tip are included and there’s never an awkward lull at the end of a meal while trying to figure out how much is dutifully owed.

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28 Comments so far ↓

  • forgetn

    Actually, in many European countries service is already included on the bill (service charge/Bedienungsgeld). Austria, Germany and France is the case. In France, they love Americans who pay for service twice — tip.

    Also in Europe tips/service charges are taxed benefits.

  • DWAnderson

    $3.25 seems like a pretty big tip for a $15 total. How bout a simple $3?

  • mlindroo

    Ryan wrote:
    > My argument for leaving a 15-20% tip (depending on how nice and speedy the service was)

    In my experience, tipping does not necessarily encourage “nice” service. I prefer to be left alone and only receive immediate attention when I ask for it. Seems some waiters are always trying to talk you into ordering more stuff regardless of whether you want it or not…

    BTW, tipping is not entirely unheard of in Western Europe … it is common in Swedish restaurants (or at least in Stockholm).


  • Madeline

    Most of the meals we’ve eaten out have involved me having to explain at length the concept of a tip, usually resulting in a lengthy explanation of waiters working primarily for tips due to their being paid minimum wage,

    Waitstaff make less than minimum wage. Tips are supposed to bring them up to minimum wage.

    BTW, this post does not tell me why Europeans hate tipping; “My friend from Italy” does not equal “Europeans”. Some context (which countries have tipping, which don’t; surveys about the practice) would have been nice.

  • LFC

    Forgetn, you can toss Switzerland onto that list too.

  • abj

    I traveled around Europe during the summer of 2006, and it was always confusing trying to figure out whether I should leave a tip. In general, it seems like it’s already added to the bill in most Western European countries (like Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, etc), but that it isn’t in Eastern Europe (Czech Republic and Croatia in particular).

  • jerseyboy

    $3.25 is more than 20%. Very generous.

  • Gus

    If waitstaff was paid a living wage, we wouldn’t need to tip. Is that so hard to understand?

  • stix2526

    As a bartender in NYC, that is the exact reason that europeans don’t get the same service as others…because we know that they won’t tip. It’s capitalist tradition to know that if you won’t get paid you won’t do the service. That might not be right but that’s the way it is. However, it’s not just the Euro’s. American southerners are almost just as bad. Being a former southerner that hurts to say but it’s true. BTW, waiter receive either $4.25/hr (min wage in NY State is $7.25) or a shift pay which is usually around $25.

  • drdredel

    the minimum wage thing varies state to state. In california, for instance, restaurants don’t get the (UNBELIEVABLE) concession from the state to pay their staff some bizarre fraction of the minimum wage (which depending on where you live can be as little as 50% of the area’s living wage minimum).
    When I was a waiter in NYC (back in the early 90s) my hourly salary was $2.10 while the state minimum wage was somewhere around $6.
    It’s true that our culture does, in fact, reward service staff with income directly from the customer, but that seems entirely besides the point as pertaining to restaurant owners, who get this bizarre welfare for no obvious reason.

    Subsequently, I have never understood why the % of the tip has kept climbing. When I was a waiter 15% was the standard tip, now it’s 18-20. It’s not as thought the prices in restaurants haven’t gone up… isn’t the whole point of tying the tip to a PERCENT of the check total to insure that the waiters make more money along with the inflationary pricing of the menu items?

    Maybe I’m just not good with numbers.

  • Kevin B

    Adding $3.25 to a $15 total for a burger is just slightly chintzy by American standards.

    Since the $15 was already discussed in the article as being the fake total (the total before tax), the real bill was probably around $16.24, tax included. So the tip of $2.01 comes out to 14% of the original $15. For those who tip on the tax as well, the tip comes to less than 12.4%.

    I’m currently working in England, and I understand that tipping is less expected here. I cringe at my co-workers tipping 20% or more, because it makes me feel cheap when I don’t do it (especially at the same restaurant). Do the waiters consider me a “bad” American?

    Tonight my co-worker picked up the tab for dinner. I talked him down from 5 pounds to a 4-pound tip for our 25 GBP tab. Last night I picked up the check: As we were leaving I dug two pounds out of my pocket and dropped it on the table for a 20 GBP meal.

    At least there’s a convention of sorts for tipping in restaurants in the U.S. When the airport shuttle bus driver jumps up to pull my small suitcase off the rack and set it on the curb, I feel as though I’m being touched for a buck. Sometimes I don’t have anything in my pocket to give her and I end my trip feeling like a jerk.

  • ds

    In Europe the tip is included in the bill.

    It’s not “capitalistic” to tip. It’s just part of an implied contract between you and your server.

  • Rabiner

    I find it humorous that this has become a ‘capitalist’ thing to do. Basically tipping is necessary in the United States because waiters would not be able to live on simply the minimum wage that their employer pays without it.

  • ltoro1

    Tipping is only the capitalist thing to do if you equate paying a tip to paying someone a commision for service that meets or exceeds expectations. As a former waiter this is how I approach the issue. If the server meets expectations, they get 15%, if the exceed expecations they get 20% or more. Once my daughter was born and my wife and I started taking her to dinner with us, we actually raised these amounts since, at least for about a year, she could make somewhat of a mess.

  • Sunny

    I can only speak from having been in London many years ago, where at the time I think the amount added to the check for the tip was 8% (which hardly seemed like a gratuity to me, since it wasn’t gratuitious but obligatory).

    Service pretty much matched. Decent looking breakfast places, where the food eventually comes out when the employee stops vaccuming the floor long enough to bring it to you (and you have to lift your feet as you eat while he vaccums under you). The exception was this tiny, tiny Italian restaurant we found in some alleyway. The first night, service was standard — acceptable, but nothing fancy. We tacked 15% on and left it on the table. The next night, and we got stellar service — *all* the staff in the restaurant were eager to fill our glasses or clean our plates, give us lessons on how to say standard phrases in Italian. By the time we went in the third time, the host literally went to a couple only just seated by one of the two window seats, removed the menues from their hands, and placed them back further in the restaurant so as to seat us by one of those premium (but still tiny) tables beside the window.

    I tend to overtip, so long as service is good, and for this reason.
    It’s an opportunity to really make a difference in someone’s day.
    If you’re at a breakfast place and eat a $5 meal, and leave $5 on the table, you will have made the day for that waitress.

  • JJ Frank

    1. Most people tip in America because they personally know waiters who struggle to make a living and they feel they are in solidarity supporting their waiter friends when they tip.

    2. Caring what a waiter thinks about you is absurd, but most people are afraid that if they don’t tip, then the waiter will not like them.

    3. Hardly anybody reduces tip for poor service. Most people believe that 15% is a minimum. Your friends will dump you if they learn that you tip insufficiently. This edict is stronger than religion.

    4. A percentage tip makes no sense. It takes as much work to deliver a $20 meal as a $100 meal. Why does one waiter get 5 times more than the other? It would make more sense to just tip $5 per person per meal.

    5. Waiters hardly do anything these days anyhow. One person greets you. Another seats you at your table. Another brings your water. Another asks what you would like to drink. Another brings your drink. Then finally, the waiter takes your order. Another brings it. The waiter returns to ask if everything is OK. Another clears the dishes. The waiter takes the dessert order. Another brings the dessert. Another fills the water glasses. Where has the waiter been all that time?? Finally when it is time to leave, you wonder where the waiter is because you want to leave and he has not brought the check. Why don’t we tip each of those 6 people who were not the waiter?

  • Sunny

    “Why don’t we tip each of those 6 people who were not the waiter?”

    You probably do. My son’s first job is as a busboy in a nice seafood restaurant. He works hand in hand with the waiters to make sure everybody gets good service, and the waiters tip him and the bartenders out at the end of the evening.

  • JonF

    Re: Hardly anybody reduces tip for poor service.

    Most people I know will leave no tip at all or an insulting few pennies if the service was a total disaster.I’ve done as much myself.

  • DFL

    Part of the joy of traveling is inundating oneself in a culture not your own. Tipping is as much a part of American culture as Neopolitan and Magherita pizzas are part of the culture of Naples.

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    [...] — Why Europeans hate tipping. [...]

  • MTfromCC

    ds- You have it almost perfectly correct – Indeed, tipping is not capitalistic, it is an implied contract between customer and server. And in Europe, it is included in the bill. But not only, that, the owner of a restaurant almost never shares the tip that is included in the base prices on the menu with the wait staff, which is invariably salaried. As left as Europe is in certain respects — like understanding that universal health care is an individual right as well as a societal necessity (and not an affront to liberty) — the fact is that, when it comes to business, Europe is exceptionally old-fashioned and rigid. Old money treats its workers like all capitalists do, just more so, they;ve been doing it longer.

    American tipping encourages meritocracy, congeniality and generosity, but also involves an abdication of responsibility by American restaurant employers to pay a fair wage (which really is kind of shitty). But is charging for service, and then not sharing with your employees, more moral? I suppose if it is “understood” in both cultures, as it seems to be, it can’t be morally right or wrong either way.

    However, most simply put, as a former waiter, born to a family of waiters, and father to at least one waitress so far, getting a small tip sucks, and people who give small tips after getting good service are cheap losers who deserve to die. There, I’ve said it.

  • caune

    Wow, waiters in your neck of the woods are lucky if they actually are making the federal minimum wage.
    In Arizona they make less than $3.00 an hour and MUST get tips to survive…and they do have to share their tips with busboys and other support staff.

  • lj

    @KB. The tip wasn’t “chintzy” it was overly generous b/c it is unnecessary to tip on top of the tax. You tip on the balance of the bill minus the tax. Tipping on the tax is cheating yourself b/c the tax, goes to the government and is not a portion of the restaurant’s profits. You tip based on the pre-tip balance of your bill to make up for the lack of pay the wait-staff make from their employer, not what the government gets. Also, even if you included sales tax, which varies but still unless it is a super high 10% ala DC, it is still more than 15%

  • mark l

    Clearly they’ve already worked it out in Europe and they resent the extra pressure we’re accustomed to, for better or worse. But it’s not as if the owners of restaurants haven’t figured this out as well. Servers are paid a percentage as a means to get them to increase the bill of their customer, in fact knowing that the tip is the main motivation for the work, managers push this line hard – point being, if servers are making a lot of money, so is the business. All that about “a server hardly does anything because 6 people are doing the work” is irrelevant, all tips a server receives feeds back into the exact same system as that between the server and customer because the server must split their tip between the bartenders/bussers. If the server doesn’t tip his co-workers appropriately, guess what, less help – just like you when you undercut the server’s tip, then go back and expect the same service. Not going to happen. Additionally, the restaurant owner knows that if a server is “swamped” no one is going to enjoy their meal and complain, so they always want someone available for a customer. This whole process works best if both the customer and the server tip appropriately based on the work done. It’s pretty straight forward.

    For all the complaining people do about servers, you’d be amazed at how satisfied people are simply to have a full glass of whatever they’re drinking, despite whatever else is going on in the restaurant. Servers who don’t understand that because free refills don’t add to the tab deserve a lesser tip. But while it’s nearly pointless to explain this to customers because – god knows servers don’t eat out – the overall point, I’d say, is if it’s the servers, all servers, you wish to punish because of the economy, you’re basically taking the easy, low road by trying to undercut this arrangement. It takes some balls to tell people they had better be satisfied with a minimum wage job – especially federal – but trust me we hear that all the time from the management. Really, the only way to earn good money as a server is to earn it by being a good server and get out of the way so this guy can enjoy his spaghetti or whatever.

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  • weiwentg

    The way we do tipping a) reduces price transparency and b) gives waitstaff too much variable compensation. a) shouldn’t need explanation. As to b), if you’re a CEO, it’s probably fine to have the majority of your compensation be variable. Most people making near minimum wage would probably rather have more security. Tipping reform – an avenue for cooperation between the left and the right?

  • GlobalGirl

    It’s not a capitalist thing to tip. I live in a state where servers are paid at least mininum wage (8.57) plus tips. My high school son was making $10 an hour plus tips. (My best friend as been in the restaurant industry for over 20 years and I hear her complants.) Most of the servers complained about customers who didn’t order drinks, used coupons, order tea or only order water with lemon. I was told ordering hot water is the worst. At one big chain restaurant the servers were required to push selling soft drinks and wine …. the restaurant had servers on teams competing against each other to raise wine sales.

    I have lived in Asia and enjoyed the laid back dining experience, fresh food, no presure to buy appetizers, drinks, soda pop, or dessert, sharing food IS expected, and NO tipping, oh, and for the most part EXCELLENT customer service, and of course tea was complimentary!

    In China if one of my kids wanted to order a soda pop it would not be uncommon to get a lecture from the server about how bad soda pop is for the body… and how we should drink hot tea or hot water. In China I learned from the locals how to order to off the menu and specific. That would be rare here in America… servers here don’t like complications and quite frankly the more I know about how servers really feel about customers the more I HATE tipping! I feel for the most part it is all about the tip and not serving to be serving.

  • Frogbarf

    The practice of tipping is wrong on so many levels

    1: Relying on tips amounts to begging for one’s wages for doing the job that they they are expected to do.

    2: It allows employers to legally justify not paying their employees minimum wage because patrons are doing it for them. Only illegal aliens earn less.

    3: It amounts to bribery and would not be tolerated in any other industry. (Try “tipping” a cop sometime)

    4: It is discriminatory: e.g. attractive female waitresses tend to bring home more in the form tips than their male or not-so attractive counterparts doing the same job.

    5: The practice is of dubious origins. In the 1800s customers would “tip” (that is “bribe”) service industry staff to ensure halfway decent service. Something else that encouraged the practice: In the late 1800s were migrant blacks would hang around near hotels and train stations asking travelers and guests if they needed help with their bags. At the time the hotels and train stations would not offer these people jobs, so these people had to rely on whatever the traveler felt like paying them. Over time this practice became a socially acceptable form of earning a living. Tipping should be forbidden in the service industry and to suggest that someone should not frequent restaurants and/or bars or “put up with it” simply because they resent the practice is a cop-out.

    There is also a chicken or the egg problem related to the practice. Service workers are forced to rely on tips simply because their employers know that customers tip and many customers tip because they know that the workers are “working for tips”. The customer should not be forced to pay an employee’s wages. That should be the employer’s responsibility.