I’m starting a new three-part series about common misconceptions from an American perspective. While there are more than three misconceptions, I’m choosing to focus on the ones I’ve noticed as a tourist and as a local. The first of this three-parter focuses on tipping.

Life lesson #1: Tipping too much

In May of 2008, my best friend and I left to Europe to enjoy our 21st birthdays abroad despite the fact that her birthday was 2 months belated. Our first stop was Paris.

And as we strolled around the perimeter of Sacre Coeur, we found a quaint albeit retrospectively touristic crêpe place dressed in sheik wood beams and 19th century mirrors. The waiter who was averaging a normal amount of friendliness and wore what we would describe as a fancy French uniform, but was just a long apron and pressed white collared-shirt and black pants, served us our traditionally French fromage crêpes and gave us a bill for EUR 24*, which I would guess is an average price for a restaurant in the touristy part of town. *I would like to note that I don’t remember the exact amount, but this feels right to me.  Not knowing what the tipping rules were and following our own American upbringing, my best friend and I proceeded to give him a 25% tip as a show of gratitude (about 5% above our norm). While the waiter was friendly, a 25% tip we would discover was quite unheard of.

At some point during the Parisian holiday, I decided to look through the guidebook I purchased specifically for that trip, and lo and behold! The text quite clearly stated and in bold, that the average tip amount in Paris was between 5 and 10%

Life lesson #2: Tipping too little

You would think I’d have learned my lesson after my first trip abroad, but in fact you’d be wrong. If you know me well you’d know that it often takes me two to three times to actually learn a lesson.

In 2012 I moved to Lyon France for a summer program. When I wasn’t suffering from a debilitating stomach flu, I was eager to try the famous Lyonnaise cuisine. At one point Lyon was called the ‘world capital of gastronomy’ due to its sixteenth century history of mixing rich regional foods. Of course my non-sophisticated taste was not ready to fully appreciate this hodgepodge of delicacy and half the time, I opted for a maîson burger.

At one of the cosy restaurants situated near the main square of the city centre in Lyon, I opted for the maîson burger and had requested it “well-done.” BIG MISTAKE.

In France and especially in a culinary capital where it’s already insulting to order a hamburger, I advise to take the meat as requested by the chef, and in this case take it tartare.

Already seen as a disobedient customer, the waiter – haughty with permanent raised eyebrows – did not even pretend to be friendly. After all his income was not based on his friendliness to me. But he did serve the meat slightly more cooked than normal and did not rush me to finish. At the end of the meal I caught his eye and made a signature motion with my hand for the check.  He hotly put the bill down and waited for me to decide whether I would pay with cash or card. I decided on cash and gave him the exact amount. No tip. My logic was that there was already a service charge and his service was sub-par. I chose to ignore that the cosy restaurant was in-fact quite posh and in turn, figured 5% wasn’t going to hurt his bank account, but… it did hurt his pride. His look said more than a thousand words as I walked passed him and out the door, not knowing who was right in this situation.

Life lesson #3: Tipping is not customary but nice to do

The Netherlands has a similar suggested tipping amount to France. Depending on the restaurant and what you order, it’s also socially acceptable to not tip at all in the Netherlands – many people don’t. It’s never expected and it’s not customary. However, I have a few friends in the restaurant industry and I’ve grown accustomed to tipping in restaurants and use my judgement in cafes. Tipping is more of a nice thing to do and the waitstaff appreciates it. It is however rare for me to tip more than 10%. For Americans visiting the Netherlands or France, I would keep to the 5 – 10% norm. In other countries, I would check beforehand because it may not be customary, it may already be added to the bill or may not be part of the culture.

Life lesson #4: The role of tipping in the States

Since moving abroad, I’ve visited Stateside a few times and each time I’m taken aback by having to put down a 15 – 25% tip. While the service in the States is usually better than Europe on a friendliness scale, I’ve grown accustomed to the more hands-off approach and the freedom to lounge in a cafe or restaurant for hours without feeling like I need to earn my stay through purchasing more food or drinks. This is a different form of hospitality and one that the restaurant industry in America could learn from. With the tipping system structured the way it is, there will always be a constant need for quick table turnover thus constricting the freedom to fully relax and enjoy the meal.

And it makes me question, if I don’t get as much enjoyment out of dining in a restaurant in the States as I do in Europe, why am I putting down a 15 – 25% tip?

I’m essentially filling the wage gap left by the restaurant industry. Is it my duty to subsidise wages or should we urge the restaurant industry to change its wage standards? I don’t have the answer, but I’m not opposed to questioning which tipping structure is better – the American system or the rest of the world?

 

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