Tipping culture in different countries
Often, when you head to a restaurant, paying and figuring out a tip can be the confusing capper on a nice meal. It’s believed that the concept of tipping originated in the 17th century thanks to the British, as part of an aristocratic practice of giving small gifts to the so-called ‘inferior classes’, yet we’re still trying to get our heads around it. Is the customary practice of 10% correct? Might it be too large, or too small, and might the server even be offended by a tip in the first place? Once you get your head around the UK system of tipping (mostly 10% of the bill, plus social discomfort), why not see how the practice has been exported around the world? Lots of nations have different tipping practices, with a country’s culture and values affecting the process.
Europe has migrated away from conventional tipping, and instead often includes a service charge in the bill
Perhaps the most obvious place to start is the USA, because tipping famously takes on a different significance there. According to tipping statistics, the USA leads the countries that tip, and this is because most people in the service industry are paid less than the minimum wage – these workers rely on tips as a supplement to their wages, and thus it’s expected that you’ll pay on average -20% extra as a thank you for their service (indeed, according to some servers, anything below 20% is considered a bad tip). It’s been known that servers will chase a customer down the street if they leave a bad tip, such is their importance.
The US practice was imported from Europe in the 19th century when wealthy Americans began travelling there. Unusually, since then, Europe has migrated away from conventional tipping, and instead often includes a service charge in the bill. This practice came from France. In 1955, a law was passed requiring restaurants to add a service charge as a way to improve wages for waiters and make them less reliant on tips (although it still remained customary to an extent). However, younger generations of French people tend to be non-tippers as a result – according to a 2014 survey, 15% of French customers said that they would “never tip”, the highest result ever recorded.
The service charge idea spread throughout Europe, and is a common system, although not in every country. In the Scandinavian countries, which are already expensive, tips are not expected because the overall price of the meals covers those costs. Belgium operates a ‘keep the change’ policy where a charge is rounded up to the next value – you can pay that, or leave more if the service was particularly good. In Russia, meanwhile, tipping was really frowned upon until the early 2000s because it was seen as a means of belittling the working class during the Soviet era.
Japan’s etiquette system allows tips on certain occasions (such as weddings or funerals), but it would normally insult the receiver
On the subject of rudeness, be very weary of tipping if you travel to Asia. China has a largely no-tipping culture – for decades, tips were prohibited and actually considered a bribe. There are a few exceptions – people tip at restaurants catering to foreign visitors, or tour guides and bus drivers – but it’s relatively uncommon. Japan’s etiquette system allows tips on certain occasions (such as weddings or funerals), but it would normally insult the receiver. The philosophy is that good service should be expected in the first place, and hotel personnel are trained to politely refuse tips as a result. You can leave some money behind in an envelope if you feel particularly inclined. Small tips do not lead to offense in Singapore, but the government website felt the need to clarify that “tipping is not a way of life” on the island.
Given the intricacies of tipping around the world, what should you do if you’re travelling? My advice is to check out local tourism websites and guidebooks for any tips, as well as specific tipping guides (this is the most detailed I found). Even a small bit of research can help avoid offending someone and if you’re really unsure, politely ask your server to help with the uncertainty, and you could leave them a little extra by way of thanks. I won’t lie to you and tell you that it’s an easy thing to crack, but the best approach is just doing the research you’d do anyway to be a good traveller.