Thursday, August 07, 2008

Tipping is Complicated

The summer is winding down. The exam for Business Organizations, the class I'm taking right now, is on Monday. Alabama has an exchange program with a Swiss school, and the Swiss exchange students arrived a couple days ago. Soon the 1Ls will be here and my class will finally get the ego boost of seeing other students running around in a panic.

Speaking of the Swiss, I went to dinner with a group of them the other night. When it came time to pay the bill, I had to explain the intricacies of tipping in America. In Switzerland, the server is already paid a living wage, and you can tip if there's exceptionally good service, but there is no obligation. I didn't realize how complicated American tipping is until I had to explain it the other night. Here's an approximation of how the conversation went:

Me: Fifteen percent is standard, but 20 percent for good service.
Swiss: What about taxes? Are those included on the menu price?
Me: No, they add that at the end, and you tip on top of that.
Swiss: What does "gratuity" mean? [It was on the check, since we had a large group.]
Me: Oh, I forgot, if you're in a big group -- usually more than 6 -- the tip will be included on the check and you don't have to add anything. "Gratuity" just means the same thing as "tip."
Swiss: Do you have to tip at supermarkets?
Me: No, just at restaurants.
Swiss: What about McDonald's?
Me: No, only at restaurants where a server brings your food to your table.

It's complicated! The Swiss kids weren't being obtuse by asking all those questions. I can see how it's confusing to people unfamiliar with it. The alternative is to switch to a system like the Swiss, where servers are paid a flat wage like workers at other jobs. The drawback is that there isn't as much incentive to work hard and give great service, but since tipping is common where the service is excellent, the incentive to work hard isn't removed entirely. It's like having a safety net -- you can't go below a certain rate of pay, but you are rewarded for being great at what you do. That system is sounding better and better.


Anonymous said...

Americans have weak mental math skills. A receipt from a restaurant I visited recently had three suggested tips calculated on each receipt: 15%, 18% and 20%.

Anonymous said...

Whatever nationality 9:32 is has trouble staying on topic.

Chase Long said...

After spending a month in Australia, which has a similar higher base pay no tipping system, I have decided our slave wages with the expectation of a tip is by far the superior system. The service here is horrible EVERYWHERE. Even in nicer restaurants you wait forever for food, the staff are not willing to deal with mistakes, and you always need to ask for everything, water/bread/whatever. Nothing is ever offered. It is really bad, and I am generally an easy to please customer.