Tipping is a place in China

Do you remember those irritating signs that used to hang behind the bar in pubs? ‘Please do not ask for credit as a refusal may offend.’ That was perhaps the worst. Another, which I saw in a restaurant once, was: ‘Tipping is not a place in China’. Well, no it isn’t, but it ought to be. It certainly shouldn’t have any place in Britain.  

Like many people of my age, I was indoctrinated in the complex etiquette of when, and when not, to tip. You always tipped in restaurants (10 per cent), and none of them added service charges then. You always tipped a taxi driver. You tipped porters. It seemed to be de rigueur to tip hairdressers. And, if you were staying in someone else’s house for the night, you left a tip for the maid or cleaner. There were probably other instances as well, but these are the ones I remember.

Throughout my life, I have gone on moronically following these “rules”, for fear of being thought mean if I don’t. I still recall with horror, aged about 10, being asked to pay a taxi fare by my great-aunt, unaware of any need to tip, and having abuse screamed at me by the driver. But now I care a great deal less what people think of me. The time has surely come for a radical reappraisal of this part of my upbringing.

It seems that tipping originated in a desire by the very rich to show that they could afford to pay more than was asked of them. This is the best possible reason not to do it: the ostentatious flaunting of wealth is disgusting. Besides which, I am not very rich and, if I go on tipping, I will be poorer still.

The rational argument against tipping is overwhelming. Why pay someone twice for the same thing? You pay a taxi driver to take you from A to B. Why pay again for being taken from A to B? You pay a hairdresser to cut your hair. Why pay again for having your hair cut? Do you add 10% to your accountant’s invoice? No, I thought not.

Restaurants are presented as a different case, but they shouldn’t be. You don’t go to a restaurant for food alone. You go to a supermarket for that. You go to a restaurant to be served good food in pleasant surroundings. That is why the bill is so high. So why pay for service a second time? Why even ask whether service is included? Of course it’s included. It’s a restaurant.

But, some people object, restaurant staff are paid so badly that their earnings need to be supplemented. Why should I be expected to compensate for the deficiencies of restaurant owners? I would be more than happy to deduct what a miserly owner has already put on for service and give it in cash to the staff, but this economic model has yet to catch on with restaurant owners.

A situation that was always bad is now a great deal worse. Many, perhaps most, restaurants put a service charge on the bill which, as we know, seldom goes to the people who have served you. It is therefore not a service charge. It is a means to make you pay twice for something compulsorily, in case you don’t do it voluntarily. Now, every bill needs to be scrutinised for what it does or does not include. Or, to be precise, to establish in how many different ways you have paid for the same thing.

Then there is the vexed question of gastro pubs. Once, pubs were pubs and restaurants were restaurants. If you ordered a Ploughman’s at the bar and someone brought it to your table, you wouldn’t think of tipping them. Does that change if it is Ham Hock Terrine? Or if you have two courses? And then a cup of coffee? Why should it change? But, if it does, do you leave the full 10 per cent or a couple of pound coins as a goodwill gesture? Nightmare.

The French (and most Europeans) have sorted this problem admirably. Service is included. Always. Maybe a little loose change to show appreciation; otherwise you leave nothing. (At least, this is my experience in restaurants. I have no idea what the rules are for French taxis and hairdressers.)

The case for abolishing tipping, except in the case of outstanding service that has gone above and beyond, is overwhelming and unanswerable. Yet still that horrible nagging doubt remains: what will they think of me? That question arose time and again on our recent holiday in India. There, tipping is expected everywhere. The absence of a tip causes injury – the fear that you have been dissatisfied with the service provided. You cannot stand in front of a guide in Jaipur and explain that his service has been impeccable, but it is against your principles to offer a tip. You cannot say that he has already been paid for his time, will shortly be taking his commission from the emporium to which he has inveigled you, and that enough is enough.

In India, my anti-tipping campaign died before it had started. I expect I will go on tipping most of the time, and then make an occasional stand against the practice, probably in the most embarrassing circumstances.

And I shall continue to leave a fiver out for the maid. When we manage to afford one.