Have I Got a Tip For You

expat issues

A curious thing about expat life and international travel is that it gets me thinking about the “why” of cultural phenomena  that I’d never questioned before.

Like today in the shower, my mind wandered to tipping at restaurants. 

In America, we tip. We just do. 
In Australia, we just don’t (unless you want to leave a couple of gold coins in acknowledgement of exceptional service).. 

I’ve written about tipping before, in terms of how it impacts me, as a customer, but even then I didn’t think about why it is culturally different.

Now, I do understand why, in the sense that in the U.S., waiters don’t make a living base wage and make up the rest in tips. And that in Australia, waiters make a decent salary, and we customers are paying them through the menu prices. 

But, why? We both more or less have origin stories that begin in England, yes? How and when did our way of doing business become so inherently different?

I did some Google research. My question has not been completely resolved, but it is an interesting history, and also amazing what strong feelings the question of tipping culture bring up. I won’t get into trying to side with which one is better/worse, but rather just tell you what I learned about the Why (and a little of the When and How).

Most sources seem to agree that a culture of tipping was common in British households as early as the 17th Century. Guests in estate homes would leave a gratuity for the household staff, which was at least partially an acknowledgement of the vast class disparity. Tipping started to become increasingly popular in British pubs, where proprietors would leave out jars that said something like, “To Insure Promptitude.” (T.I.P.s, heh? … Wikipedia says this may or may not be the origin of the word). If you wanted good service, you left a tip.

I could not find anything about the evolution of tipping (or not) in Australia, but the short version of tipping in the U.S. goes something like this:

At first, tipping was not the norm in America. It was seen as a symbol of an aristocratic society, and of course, early America wanted nothing to do with that. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that:

“wealthy Americans began traveling to Europe in significant numbers, and they brought the tip home with them to demonstrate their worldliness. But the United States, unlike Europe, had no aristocratic tradition, and as tipping spread — like “evil insects and weeds,” The New York Times claimed in 1897 — many thought it was antithetical to American democratic ideals. “Tipping, and the aristocratic idea it exemplifies, is what we left Europe to escape,” William Scott wrote in his 1916 anti-tipping screed, “The Itching Palm.” One periodical of the same era deplored tipping for creating a class of workers who relied on “fawning for favors.” (NY Times)

There was plenty of opposition, but nonetheless, the tradition began to seep into the culture more and more. As did the expected size of the tip. In the early 20th Century, tips were about 10% of the bill. Today, of course, closer to 20%.

As tipping culture grew in the U.S., the British were getting fed up with it. The 1943 Catering Wages Act in Britain established a minimum wage for service employees that helped decrease their reliance on tips.” (NY Times, again). I would assume that Australia, at that time, would have gone along with what England was doing; so this may explain how Australia ended up with no tipping culture. Although, I’m not clear on whether they ever had one like England did, since – like America – it was never a class-based society, and has a strong distaste for “tall poppies” getting a bit above themselves. 

If any of you smart readers know more about the history of tipping in Australia, I hope you might leave a comment. I’d love to learn more. 

Everyone else … tip your waiters. 
Or, don’t.

If you’re interested in the topic, the NY Times article I quoted from is long, but well worth the read.
Other sources, were this one, this one, and of course this one.

8 thoughts on “Have I Got a Tip For You

  1. Libby

    I wish we didn’t tip here, but just because you can work so hard at a table and get no tip. Better to have a guaranteed wage. In my opinion only. Cool post.

  2. Mary Stewart

    Hey Cristin –

    I thought that maybe it would have something to do with the penal colonies in Australia in the 18th and 19th centuries (the whole “convicts must not tip” judgement). But really, the number of people who were brought there as convicts was far less than the number of people who went there for the gold rush in the 1850s. The population quadrupled in less than 50 years! So my theory was dashed. However- that was followed by a pretty severe economic bust – so again, I was hopeful (“poor people don’t tip”). Then I remembered that we had a similar one of those economic busts in the 30’s. Hmh.

    So I’ve settled on this: I think maybe the type of person who made it ALL THE WAY (there on their own) is just a non-tipper. I have noticed living out here in the Pacific Northwest/West Coast that there is a certain “barbaric-ish” sensitivity to the culture here. People EAT – not dine. I wonder if it has to do with the type of person who decided to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and move their entire family out here? Frankly, I didn’t really enjoy the trip and I had a car and moving van. I can’t imagine what it would have been like for someone on a horse or in a covered wagon! It would take a pretty fierce woman to handle that and actually make it and make a home and procreate successfully.

    “The Pioneer Woman Theory” paired with the fact that here, restaurant employees make actual Oregon Minimum wage ($8.80) and not “tipped-employee minimum wage” which, in other states, is at most $4.35-ish, makes me think that is why tipping isn’t as big here either.

    Also, I’ve been told that the service industry here is very asian inspired? Waiters leave you the hell alone until you really need something and in a lot of restaurants, you get your own water, bus your own tables and sometimes even come up to the counter and pick up your own food. Is that the case there? I imagine it would be casual and authentic and kinda “every man for themselves”?? I think this practice of taking away the service makes for a culture that just doesn’t tip as much?

    My final answer is “Less Service Less (or no) Tip. What do you think?

  3. C. In Oz

    Ha, Mary – you’ve given this a lot of thought!!

    OK, so my theory is a little bit different (though wholly unsubstantiated). Australians have in their culture a strong distaste for anything that looks like a class system. There’s even a phrase here called “tall poppy syndrome,” which means that if someone is seen as getting a bit above their station or big for their britches, that they will be “cut down.” And, it seems like tipping, by nature, is an acknowledgement of different classes.

    If tipping was seen as something that aristocrats did for poor people, then Australians probably wouldn’t have much use for that way of doing things. Plus, I’ll bet they wouldn’t have had the influx of people who were traveling back and forth to Europe like the U.S. did.

    We do definitely have some of that “Asian inspired” dining style (never heard it called that before!), particularly in cafes and some lower priced restaurants. But, mid to high priced restaurants are full service. I’d also mention that the minimum wage here is something like $15/hour, and waiters working in a place nicer than, say, McDonalds is probably doing a fair bit better than that. So, they get paid alright, it’s just incorporated into the menu price. There’s a societal expectation that people should make a fair wage for a day’s work.

    So, that’s my theory. I can’t prove a word of it. 🙂

  4. C. In Oz

    Oh, and Libby, I have to say that I agree with you – especially after reading that NY Times article which said there’s no correlation between the quality of service and the size of the tip. Defies the whole point of the exercise! (Though, devil’s advocate … service is generally much better in the U.S.)

  5. af1a2a40-7411-11e0-a216-000bcdcb2996

    Been thinking on this and how it does, or does not, relate to commission. I mean, there’s definitely some incentive to get you to have a (oh what is the name of that before-dinner thing – aperitif, but that’s not right) and a dessert because the higher your bill the more the tip. (Loosely speaking.) And that’s all sort of uber-capitalist, or maybe just uber-pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps — if you work hard you will be rewarded. (Yeah, right.)

    So what’s tehe deal with commission there? A lot of it or a little or not at all?


  6. C. In Oz

    Hmmm… I’m actually not sure. I think not that much, but then I’ve never looked for work in an area that would call for commission. My guess – less than in the U.S.

    Based on … nothing but a hunch.

    Oh, and just to confuse you further – here appetizers are called “entrees.” Wrap your mind around that. 😉

  7. C. In Oz

    I know who you are, ol’ Gobbldygook. 😉

    After the entree, you have your main. And then dessert. Dessert is the same. You can hold onto that one.

Comments are closed.