Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Thailand: The Freedom Not to Tip in Restaurants

empty serving tray
One thing I've always loathed about the restaurant experience in Canada is the tacit requirement that you must leave a tip. The often contrived back and forth that takes place table-side creates a palpable sense that a calculation is going on in the minds of both  server and patron about what will be an appropriate gratuity.

This over-riding consideration hangs over many a meal, but especially those which feature bad food, bad service, or both. You can feel the contempt-filled challenge from a sneering waiter or waitress that says, "Just dare not to leave a reasonable tip."

Is it possible to simply not leave a tip? It depends on the restaurant. Many now include a service charge on the bill, which can be convenient to a degree but on the other hand, it limits your choices. Even with the service charge included, some people still add a "little extra" on top of that. A worrying trend for tight-fisted individuals and those who only leave a tip (and sometimes a sizable one) if it is warranted.

Don't get me wrong...I don't take the decision not to leave a tip lightly. When you walk into a restaurant in countries where the tipping custom exists, you are entering into a kind of agreement that obliges you to tip. The difference between myself and most non-thinking tippers, is that I expect the restaurant and serving personnel to uphold their end of the bargain. If they don't, I won't tip, or I will leave such a meager offering that it is clear what I think of their establishment.

And with that action, I have essentially severed my relationship with the restaurant. I won't be going back, especially if it is a smaller place. The tipping instinct is so ingrained that the decision not to tip in a small restaurant marks you for the foreseeable future. Return and you will potentially face even worse service. Or something altogether more sinister.

Not leaving a tip can create a very uncomfortable situation. And while it will usually last for only a very few minutes before you slip out the side entrance never to return, a confrontation is possible. It hasn't happened to me but I have spoken to people who have been berated in the parking lot by serving personnel who feel they have not been given a sufficiently large tip.

How Did it Come to This?

How did things get to a place where this culture of tipping is enforced so effortlessly? Where so many people dutifully leave the required percentage without stopping to consider whether or not it is warranted?

First, tipping is not really about helping out the hard-done by, poorly paid waiting staff (though it does that as well while also subsidizing restaurant owners for the crap wages they pay—yes, we get it about razor thin margins on food). It is mainly about appearances. The restaurant experience provides the opportunity for people to show off their knowledge and class.

Leaving a big tip announces to all that you are a good, decent person, and one who doesn't have to worry about money. This is a powerful regulating force that ensures the vast majority of people tip. (And even if others in your dinner party aren't aware of the size of tip you left, you can still boost your self-image and make servers think you are quite all right.)

Second, a sneering, sullen attitude amongst many servers has developed over the last decade or so. This is partly the result of the sense of entitlement created by the tipping culture (of course, this kind of behaviour will exist only where management at any given restaurant tolerates it).

But it's also part of the general zeitgeist that says politeness equals weakness and being a disinterested, tattooed, sneering punk is somehow "kewl." Strangely enough, it seems that accepting such an attitude from servers and not making an issue of it is seen as cool as well.

Perhaps it's somewhat down to the proliferation of gonzo food writers like Anthony Bourdain. Maybe their tales of "authentic" individuals and undiscovered artists toiling away in kitchens and dining rooms have convinced many that it's hip to accept bad service from junkies, alcoholics and various other edgy people who don't waste time on things like politeness and professionalism.

Alan Richman recently ripped the proliferation of terrible service in his restaurant review column in GQ. But the bad service he received still wasn't enough to convince him not to leave a tip.

No Strong Tipping Culture in Thailand

But the requirement to tip does not exist in every country. Thailand is a case in point. Eat out at a decent restaurant and you will feel no pressure to tip at the end of the night although you well might leave something regardless.

Of course, crap service is just as prevalent in restaurants in Thailand as it is in Canada (perhaps more so). But the fact that there is not the insistence on leaving a tip in Thailand makes the crap service more acceptable. You feel comfortable not leaving a tip.

Will Things Change?

The tipping culture is here to stay in numerous countries. But some people like to entertain the notion that voting with your wallet and not tipping when you receive bad service could result in positive changes. But because many others will unthinkingly vomit forth the required surcharge regardless of what service they receive, not tipping is unlikely to have an effect at a particular restaurant.

In this way, Thailand and countries with a long tradition of tipping are the same: tipping or not tipping in Thailand will have little or no impact on the service level at a restaurant. Few servers (with the exception of those who work at restaurants frequented by tourists) in Thailand will attach a reason to why someone did or did not leave a tip.

Free from the pressure, you just may find yourself tipping as much or more often than in countries where it has become an involuntary response to dining out.


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