how the world sees america

Big Tippers -- 'Cause You Get What You Pay For

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Morecambe - “The American public treats the people in the service industry with respect and value whereas in England we don't. We treat them as some kind of menial, almost slave labor.”

So says Barry Lucas, a former concert promoter in Lancaster, now a primary school teacher in Morecambe. With his second wife, Mary Lucas, who spent a decade with a traveling German circus dancing atop the head of an elephant and now works for the community arts center, the couple talks about their positive experiences of American hospitality, including the care they received at their second wedding in San Francisco in 1993.

Barry describes “how nice, friendly and genuine” Americans are in their own country, how one always hears “have a nice day” and receives “help in the supermarket.” Mary chimes in, “Whereas in England you get a grunt and a reluctance” to serve, in America the wait staff really seems to care. And in turn, Americans treat their wait staff well.

“That might have something to do with the fact that they [Americans] work for their tips,” says Marry. “The tipping thing is automatic in America, it isn't in England. In fact the English…[have] got a reputation of being quite ‘tight’…not very generous.” The bartending beauty contestant from the previous post concurred.

bar.jpg
Good service at the Sun Bar in Lancaster.
Barry speculates that another reason is “…in America most of the people working in those industries are probably students working their way through college…so you might be being rude to your potential gynecologist or neurosurgeon…” whereas in England, he says, it’s different because “…students generally wouldn’t work their way through college” first because of the grant system in the country and now the student loan system, both of which he describes as reasonably generous.

But there’s a flip side to the friendly American at home, Barry said: “I’ve hated Americans in England because we seem to get the loudest and noisiest,” perhaps because they expect the same type of attention they receive in the U.S.

After leaving the couple, I ponder their explanations and think up a few more. Tips are indeed expected in America, they're essentially part of the price -- and base wages in the services industries are very low as any waiter can tell you.

Then I take a look at my own tipping habits. When I arrived, I paid the cabbies fifteen percent extra. I’ve stopped doing that now. The fares here are outrageously expensive anyway. Do most Americans stop tipping when they find out they aren't expected to overseas? The beauty contestant said her customers in Greece were still better than the rest. But it’s money after all.

Upon deeper reflection, I consider the culture of meritocracy and consumer choice that America has cultivated. Tipping produces better service, our capitalist whizzes realized, because it fluctuates compensation based on customer satisfaction.

And America is all about customer satisfaction. We’ve created the ultimate competitive market for it. I enjoy shopping and eating out; I enjoy the efficient service, the pleasant environment. I type this over coffee at the Sun Bar in Lancaster, watching my waitress with extra care. She's been quite nice so far.

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Comments (19)

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guacamolelover:

Ben’s comment about the check being placed on the table without a request from the diners made me laugh. I had the opposite problem when I visited the U.K. the first time. My dinner partner and I were slowly growing angry that the wait staff wasn’t giving us our check. We kept waiting, sending speaking glances their way, while they stood watching us. It finally dawned on my dim witted self that there must be a cultural difference and I needed to ask for my check. Once I figured that out, I was fine. Before that, though, I was thinking what poor service I was receiving since the wait staff could clearly see that I had finished my meal and were not responding by delivering the check.

My European friends have also been shocked and offended by the American habit of asking for to-go boxes for leftovers. As anyone who has traveled here has found, most restaurants serve meals that could feed an army. So it’s customary to take home the leftovers, which become the following day’s lunch. But after my foreign friends have been in the U.S. a while, they’re asking for their to-go box, too.

Sam:

In Montreal at the bars they expect you to tip (at least a dollar per drink) and if you dont you might find yourself on the wrong end of a bum rush from one of Montreal's steroid loving bouncers.

Mickey:

In my extensive world traveling experience, the worst service come from the former USSR Russia, Ukraine e.g. not friendly, not helpful, no smile, only cold indifference.

Who needs this? Paying good money to get insulted and ignored by Russians and Ukrainians.

In addition, in Russia and Ukraine they charge foreigners much higher prices (often double).

In the U.S. I get very good services from friendly, helpful, and smiling professionals. I would rate America at the top.


Eric:

In answer to the question, "Do most Americans stop tipping when they go overseas?" I would say the answer is probably yes, but it depends on whether the country in question has tipping as part of it's culture. I'm an American living in Korea where tipping is not part of the service culture, and therefore few foreigners here tip. When I first arrived here I tried to tip the cabbie that took me to my hotel only to have him give me the tip back despite my protests. I've had the same happen in Korean restaurants as well. This is changing slowly, especially in areas such as Itaewon in Seoul where foreigners tend to congregate. In these places it's becoming more common to see tip jars on the bar. In other countries that I've visited in Asia, such as Taiwan, Vietnam, and The Phillipines, tipping is a more common with the corresponding increase in foreigners who tip.

Vijay:

Some services are not luxury but necessitities: Eating and even massage can be a necessisity. What I am trying to say is that some people just can not afford to pay tips on top of the high costs of service and this in any way should be construed as an insult.

foreign service:

I have traveled around the world, with the foreign service for the past fifteen years. While the USA is the only coutry I know of where 15% tip is assumed and often times automatically charged on the check, a tip of some sort is common everywhere. Typically, as in Europe the tip is not a percentage, but some relatively low amount like the equivalent of a dollar or two, even if the check is 50$. In Asia, again the tip is typically quite low a couple of dollars on a 40-50$ check, the greater amount typically from foreigners. Although that is changing and 5-10% added to the check is becoming more common. In Latin America, the tip is also more of what it sounds like, the tip (of the bill), rather than a substantial portion of the total outlay. And one last point, the quality of the service seems less dependent on culture and more on the individual waiter/manager/owner. Waiters from Lisbon to Buenos Aires, Washington to Manila or Hong Kong all have their own personal approach and are more refective of their employers demands and training etc., not their customers; some are freindly and attentive; others are distracted and slow; some hang over you like a shadow; while others are long gone most of the evening. Expectations of a tip don't seem to affect their performance ( the tip is often pooled together and distributed at the end of the week or month). An economic mom and pop place on one side the street can provide service for royalty. While on the other side of the street, in an upscale pricey bistro/cafe, you might be better off bringing your meal and a water bottle; as the waiter is nowhere to be seen for the first twenty minutes and more intersted in something back in the kitchen, where he/she disappears to for long stretches of time. One should always expect the unexpected, as in, assume nothing based on country or price range.

foreign service:

I have traveled around the world, with the foreign service for the past fifteen years. While the USA is the only coutry I know of where 15% tip is assumed and often times automatically charged on the check, a tip of some sort is common everywhere. Typically, as in Europe the tip is not a percentage, but some relatively low amount like the equivalent of a dollar or two, even if the check is 50$. In Asia, again the tip is typically quite low a couple of dollars on a 40-50$ check, the greater amount typically from foreigners. Although that is changing and 5-10% added to the check is becoming more common. In Latin America, the tip is also more of what it sounds like, the tip (of the bill), rather than a substantial portion of the total outlay. And one last point, the quality of the service seems less dependent on culture and more on the individual waiter/manager/owner. Waiters from Lisbon to Buenos Aires, Washington to Manila or Hong Kong all have their own personal approach and are more refective of their employers demands and training etc., not their customers; some are freindly and attentive; others are distracted and slow; some hang over you like a shadow; while others are long gone most of the evening. Expectations of a tip don't seem to affect their performance ( the tip is often pooled together and distributed at the end of the week or month). An economic mom and pop place on one side the street can provide service for royalty. While on the other side of the street, in an upscale pricey bistro/cafe, you might be better off bringing your meal and a water bottle; as the waiter is nowhere to be seen for the first twenty minutes and more intersted in something back in the kitchen, where he/she disappears to for long stretches of time. One should always expect the unexpected, as in, assume nothing based on country or price range.

foreign service:

I have traveled around the world, with the foreign service for the past fifteen years. While the USA is the only coutry I know of where 15% tip is assumed and often times automatically charged on the check, a tip of some sort is common everywhere. Typically, as in Europe the tip is not a percentage, but some relatively low amount like the equivalent of a dollar or two, even if the check is 50$. In Asia, again the tip is typically quite low a couple of dollars on a 40-50$ check, the greater amount typically from foreigners. Although that is changing and 5-10% added to the check is becoming more common. In Latin America, the tip is also more of what it sounds like, the tip (of the bill), rather than a substantial portion of the total outlay. And one last point, the quality of the service seems less dependent on culture and more on the individual waiter/manager/owner. Waiters from Lisbon to Buenos Aires, Washington to Manila or Hong Kong all have their own personal approach and are more refective of their employers demands and training etc., not their customers; some are freindly and attentive; others are distracted and slow; some hang over you like a shadow; while others are long gone most of the evening. Expectations of a tip don't seem to affect their performance ( the tip is often pooled together and distributed at the end of the week or month). An economic mom and pop place on one side the street can provide service for royalty. While on the other side of the street, in an upscale pricey bistro/cafe, you might be better off bringing your meal and a water bottle; as the waiter is nowhere to be seen for the first twenty minutes and more intersted in something back in the kitchen, where he/she disappears to for long stretches of time. One should always expect the unexpected, as in, assume nothing based on country or price range.

Jack:

In America we pretend to care but in reality we don't give a rat ass about customers. Have a nice day?, yeah right!.

I hate those waiters/waitresses coming every 6 or 7 minutes to ask if everything is ok, can't they leave us alone for a while until we call them to pay the check or if we need something?.

We are not friendly, we confuse friendliness with being nosy.

Ben:

It's true that in America the servers are more attentive to their customers, but sometimes I feel they give too much attention. Servers frequently pass by your table, interrupting any conversations to ask if you need anything. In many restaurants, they don't even wait for you to ask for the bill. Some may say this is a convenience, but all it does is make it obvious they are pushing you out the door so they can get more customers. Times like those make me long for the restaurants in Europe, where dining is much more relaxed.

Chris Marsh:

Over ten years ago I was doing dinner with friends, who always tip. They simply consider the 15% or 20% a cost of eating out: if you can, eat out, if not, don't.

Chuck:

@ Vijay

Not that I spend a lot of time with massage therapists, but it's unlikely that that entire $85 goes into her pocket. Even if she owns her own business, that's still going to rent, overhead, taxes, and wages for any support employees. Ultimately, professions that expect tips usually undercharge their customers in the expectation that they'll be compensated for the quality of their work.
Moreover, the practice of tipping goes beyond simple issues of money. Tipping is optional, here as in Europe, but when you don't tip in the United States, the assumption is that you are making a point about the quality of the service. Service industry employees live (or starve) by their tips, but on a deeper level, a good server or therapist who works hard and is proud of the service they provide is very likely to take a refusal to tip as a personal insult. In essence, you're implying that they did a poor job or aren't worthy of respect. In this case, the fact that you were willing to pay $85 dollars an hour (more than a full day's wages for you) for a totally optional luxury service like a massage, but were too tight to spring for the additional 15% the therapist expected for doing a good job says more about you than her, in my opinion.

Chuck:

@ Vijay

Not that I spend a lot of time with massage therapists, but it's unlikely that that entire $85 goes into her pocket. Even if she owns her own business, that's still going to rent, overhead, taxes, and wages for any support employees. Ultimately, professions that expect tips usually undercharge their customers in the expectation that they'll be compensated for the quality of their work.
Moreover, the practice of tipping goes beyond simple issues of money. Tipping is optional, here as in Europe, but when you don't tip in the United States, the assumption is that you are making a point about the quality of the service. Service industry employees live (or starve) by their tips, but on a deeper level, a good server or therapist who works hard and is proud of the service they provide is very likely to take a refusal to tip as a personal insult. In essence, you're implying that they did a poor job or aren't worthy of respect. In this case, the fact that you were willing to pay $85 dollars for a totally optional luxury service like a massage, but were too tight to spring for the additional 15% the therapist expected for doing a good job says more about you than her, in my opinion.

Vijay:

I am actually sick and tired of paying tips. I went to a massage therapist and paid $85 for one hour. This therapist was just standing there and looking for tips and seemed kind of upset when I said Have a good day and walked away.
Pay tip on top of a $85 bill for one hour? I make $10 per hour.

JRLR:

Thanks for that note. It has been a busy few days but let me take some time this weekend or early next week and add my preliminary thoughts on methodology to a comment or a separate post for you and others. I agree that's its very important to show the mix of serendipity and planning. Will do shortly. Regards, Amar

JRLR:

Amar, as your journey progresses, I am getting more curious how it was determined which countries you would travel to (and in what sequence), which cities you would spend time in, which places, institutions, etc. you would visit, who you would meet and interview (and in what context), which topics you would present to your readers, etc.. I am wondering how much of that was planned ahead, how much of it has developed along the way, how much of it has been purely accidental.

I hope you do not mind me asking publicly, on this forum. You might feel it is nobody's business but your own. Given that I did raise the multimedia methodology issue from the start, you could easily conclude, after reading the above questions, that I am some sort of methodology freak. Not (quite) so!.. yet I would love to know HOW you do things, obviously, i.e. HOW a professional like you accomplishes his journalistic work, in 2007.

Anyhow, as I am sure you have realised already, you are beginning to have enough material for at least two publications: 1. "How the World Sees America: Interviews, Comments and Reflections". 2. "An Interactive Journalistic Project in Multimedia, "How the World Sees America": Methodology" (or how it was done). Those would-be "titles" sound a bit formal, academic even, but the ideas behind are clear enough, I believe. You may want to write down some quick methodological notes every now and then, leaving for later to determine how it was "there was logic to that madness", after all...

Just to say I am convinced I would not be the only one to enjoy, some day, reading two such books, under your name.

Amanda J.:

I wonder, as America's consumer culture spreads around the world, whether we'll have more service that's like the American breed, or whether something new will develop. It's true though, American service is terrific. I've lived all over the place and have always found the same.

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