Yes, American tipping culture is weird, but it's not optional.
When anyone travels to another country, it’s expected they should at least make some effort to understand the culture of where they’re visiting. There’s no need for a deep dive into the history of the French Revolution before going to Paris, but at least know that dinner is typically served later than in the United States. As a longtime waiter who served in the trenches of Times Square tourist traps, I had my share of customers from abroad who failed to understand the tipping culture of this country.
Understandably, tipping here is a confusing mess. Everyone expects a tip whether it’s the person who assisted you with your luggage or the counter attendant who flipped a tablet toward you after ringing in a self-serve coffee. But in restaurants, it’s a societal contract that tipping is expected. So why do so many people visiting from other countries not know this?
We live in a time where information is literally at the tips of our fingers. There is no question that can’t be answered by Siri or Google. Even in the dawn of the internet, Ask Jeeves would probably have said, “Yes, you tip your restaurant server.” In plenty of other countries, tipping at restaurants isn’t the norm. Servers there might actually be making a living wage to wait tables, while servers in some states here are doing it for $2.13 an hour. Attention Fodor’s, Frommer’s, Lonely Planet, and all other travel guide writers: Please inform visitors to the United States that tipping at restaurants and bars is expected. Tipping 15-20% of the bill is typical and if fractions are hard, just double the tax. Many servers make an immediate assumption when waiting on someone from another country and the assumption is that it’s going to be a lousy tip. They don’t want to think that way, but years of bad tips from vacationing tourists reinforce the stereotype.
Recently, my friend went out to dinner with his family who was visiting from London and the bill for their dinner was $300. My friend’s dad wanted to pay the check, so my friend thoroughly explained to him how tipping works. The advice went in one British ear and out the other resulting in a $20 tip. It was like he just couldn’t wrap his mind around the American custom of leaving an additional 20%, or maybe he just had a stiff upper stubborn lip. My friend came to the rescue of the server and covertly left an additional $40, but if it wasn’t for him, the server would have yet another reason to believe the cliché that tourists don’t tip.
I love tourists, I really do. I’m the first one to offer help when I see one trying to navigate the subway system. If we don’t speak the same language, I do my best to communicate and be friendly. New Yorkers have a reputation of being somewhat gruff, but it’s not completely true. It’s another stereotype and those molds can be broken. We all have to try to adjust to the culture of wherever we’re visiting and maybe even learn a bit of the language. Hopefully it will be appreciated.
But remember, if you ask a question in a language you’re not familiar with, be prepared for the answer to come back at you in that same language. I once asked where the restrooms were at the Louvre in my perfectly practiced French. The reply was a mini monologue because les toilettes were nowhere near. “Merci,” I said and then I asked someone else in English after apologizing for not knowing their language. I also tipped 20% to every waiter I had because just like Europeans who can’t grasp the idea of tipping too much, I can’t handle tipping too little. I guess some habits are hard to break.
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