Not a City in China

by maxmosher

All over Dublin I would see the little penned note on glass cups sitting beside the till. As I paid for my latte and chatted with the (usually) non-Irish barista, I would ponder why so many cafes seemed to have the same, borderline-racist sign: “Tipping is not a city in China”. Beyond the fact that Taipei, the city whose name sounds the most like ‘tipping’, is actually in Taiwan, I was sceptical on whether Dubliners really had to be harassed into leaving some change.

Then I started working at a Starbucks and I understood. The Irish assumed that service was included in their bills and, especially at a cafe, didn’t think they should tip at all.

Now that I work in a restaurant, I’m learning about the vast underground economy of tipping, where thousands of dollars pass through hands every day. I’ve also seen that servers (our fabulous servers include a writer, a male model and a jewellery designer) spend most of their time talking about their tips: bad tips, good tips, but mostly bad.

I only recently became aware of people who routinely don’t tip servers a single penny. I thought everyone knew that servers get paid almost nothing and it’s only through tips that they are able to survive between acting gigs. It’s a difficult, tiring and often thankless job being the face of the restaurant, which you don’t manage, and the kitchen, whose meals you don’t make.

Of course, we’ve all experienced bad service and when you have a rude or indifferent server you remember it for a long time. The first and last night I went to the ‘Red Room’ on Spadina (yeah, I named names!) my friend asked if we could have pint glasses for our pitcher rather than the little kids’ juice glasses we had been given. Our server acted as though it was the most awkward question in the world, then disappeared, never to be seen again. An hour later, we got a new serve but no pint glasses.

But, as I always say when I get into the debate of bad servers versus bad customers (loudly, during Sunday family dinners), when it’s your job to serve someone you are not the one wirh the power. The customer can be rude, raise their voice, threaten to talk to your manager; you have to smile politely. The customer can walk away from the situation; you are glued to the spot. Ultimately, the customer can ‘vote with their feet’ (as they say in poli-sci) and never return to the restaurant. You, on the other hand, need this job, at least until after your next credit card payment is due.

(Yes, some bars have bouncers who can act as Praetorian guards against unruly customers. Restaurants and cafes never do, which, if you’ve ever had to deal with uncaffeinated people, they would benefit from.)

So what I’m saying is be generous and friendly.  Smile at your servers and they will most likely smile back. The secret is, servers (unlike some TTC employees) do not see customers as the enemy and want to have a pleasant evening as much as you do.

But tipping remains awkward, right? I hate how it’s semi-official, like some sort of cultural tradition you just had to pick up. I hate how you have to add up the tax or figure out a percent in your head, and even that’s just the minimum. I hate how your friends will lean over to see if you’ve under- or over-tipped.  Alternatively, I hate how some people simply don’t tip, potentially because they were never brought up to, and will continue to not tip because no one will mention it. Most of all, I hate how nobody talks about it (at least above a whisper). It’s all very awkward and silly.

Let’s do like many sophisticated European countries and include the service in the bill. I suggest we add the very minimum tipping amount to the cheque with the understanding that you can add more or leave less, if your service was bad, without being chased out the building.  While restaurant owners probably won’t like this (it would make their prices look higher), in the long run it would lead to greater simplicity for customers and better incomes for servers which, in a reversal of mythic ‘trickle down economics’, trickles back up through the economy and benefits everyone, culturally as well as monetarily.

As Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) says in ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, “Finally I can stop suffering and write that symphony!”