Friday, May 28, 2004

On "Brits," Tipping, and Tipping Points

Britain--London at least--has changed so much since I last lived here. It seems so much more affluent now than back then. It has also somehow managed to become both more American and more European while remaining distinctively itself. Still, there are a lots of things about the place I just don't get. Take tipping. My British friends are always happy to explain their customs to an outsider. Except when it comes to tipping. No one can explain tipping. If you ask Brits how it works, they always look embarrassed, change the subject,or just plain refuse to answer. Do you or don't you? And how much?

On the face of it, there would seem to be two stable equilibrium positions: (i) always tip; and (ii) never tip. The US has adopted stable equilibrium position (i). Continental Europe has gone for (ii). Thus in the US everyone tips 15% for every service delivered by a non-salaried employee. It's simple. On continental Europe, in contrast, no one ever tips anyone. Thus waiters (I know I used to be one) get a percentage in their weekly salary of their sales . Sometimes customers will leave their loose change or a little extra if the waiter has exceeded role expectations. But if the customer does not tip, no conventions are broken, no feelings hurt. It's simple.

In Britain, in contrast, there does not seem to be a clear and settled convention. Sometimes the menu will say--often in suspiciously small 8 point print--"service included." But even then, the credit card slip the waiter brings to the table invariably has a line for "gratuities." Up until now, whenever I was presented with one of these credit card slips, I dutifully tacked on 15%. Just recently a Brit broke ranks and told me that I'd been double tipping. I was pissed. I suggested to my friend that in future we ask the waiter to tell us whether service is included. He looked shocked. I got the sense that asking waiters would not be the done thing at all.

I've decided that from now on, I'm not going to tip. Ever.

I suspect that I'm not the only one confused and resentful about British tipping practices and if enough of us stand up and stop, we can achieve, what Malcolm Gladwell has called, "a tipping point". Although in our case, it will be a tipping point that terminates tipping. Await further news on how this campaign unfolds. I'm having lunch tomorrow with a former student in Leicester Square. I'm going to try it out.

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