Tip in the balance

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 October, 2011, 12:00am


I'm planning a holiday to New York in a couple of weeks, and apart from the problem of wanting to eat at more than 20 restaurants in six days, I'm having tip anxiety.

I was born and raised in the United States, so tipping is not new to me. I'm fully aware that in America, while tipping wait staff in restaurants is ostensibly voluntary, in reality, it's an obligation.

There are ongoing threads - more like arguments - on foodie websites such as Chowhound.com and eGullet.org, where posters in the United States say that a 15 per cent tip is the minimum in smaller cities, and it's 20 per cent in cities like New York - and that's for service that's just efficient. If the waiter is friendly, helpful and engaging, the tip should be even more.

Posters from other countries, where tipping means just leaving the small change, or where it's frowned upon entirely (as in Japan), argue that they shouldn't have to tip at all if they receive indifferent service.

In the US, wait staff receive an hourly rate that varies depending on the state they work in. In some places, waiters are paid less than the minimum wage, and are supposed to be able to make up the deficit with tips. In other places - especially in larger cities where the cost of living is higher - they're paid the state's minimum wage, and make extra on tips. Waiters are taxed on the amount of tips they're estimated to earn, so pro-tippers believe that if you don't tip enough, you're double-penalising the server because they're taxed on money they don't make. It can be argued that wait staff should receive enough money from their employers so that their extra (but necessary) money doesn't have to come from diners in the form of tips, but that's not going to happen in the foreseeable future.

Waiters in the US admit to having stereotypes about customers: they say women are bad tippers, as are Asians and many other minorities (even those born in the States) and foreigners. I'm female, I'm Asian, and I'll be eating with my husband, who's British. That's three strikes.

Posters on food websites who report receiving bad service wonder if waiters see them, hear their non-American accents, and become less attentive, figuring they're going to receive a bad tip anyway. Some of my Hong Kong friends have said they've been chased and scolded by wait staff after leaving a tip that was deemed less than sufficient.

I hate rewarding bad behaviour. If the service is good, I'll conform to the norm and leave the obligatory 20 per cent tip. I don't expect to receive rude or indifferent service, but if I do, I'll be very reluctant to leave even 15 per cent. But I worry that by fitting with the waiter's ridiculous stereotype, he'll be even ruder to the next Asian female who, in his view, doesn't know how to tip properly.