Over-The-Top Tips

"Excuse me?" I asked. The young lady sitting alone at the bar repeated her insult. "A $1 tip for five drinks? That is so cheap."

"Actually, it was three drinks, for $12, which makes the tip nearly 10 percent," I countered. And wondering why I was defending myself, I asked: "Are you with the Service Industry Secret Service or something?"

Any foreigner in America will sooner or later have an awkward encounter over tips. I'm beginning to think that arrival signs for immigration in this country should read: WELCOME TO AMERICA. PLEASE LEAVE AN ADEQUATE TIP, REGARDLESS OF HOW MUCH YOU ENJOY YOUR STAY.

You see, here you tip everyone--and well. Since I've lived in the United States for the past eight years, you'd think I would have figured that out by now. But no, I'm still a cheapskate, it seems, oblivious to the fact that "waitpersons" in this country have to live on their tips. Their salaries, if they're paid at all, are well below minimum wage. So when it comes time to settle a bill, pay attention. These folks need a tip. A real tip, not just the easy 10 to 15 percent!

Actually, 15 percent is the bare minimum these days. If you don't want a screaming waitress in your ear (not to mention a frosty stranger dissing you), better make it 20 percent--or more. I'm serious. An old girlfriend and I used to frequent an Italian restaurant in L.A., where we were always showered with hospitality. Then, one Friday night, after occupying a booth for the better part of an evening and eating almost nothing, I left what seemed like a generous 15 percent. Our waitress stormed up after us, shouting, "Are you for real?" Luckily, the manager smoothed things over. But that, I've since learned, was itself an aberration. Leave a 10 percent tip these days and the owner will often come over. "Was it not to your satisfaction, sir?"

"No, everything was fine," you might reply.

"Then why the lousy tip?" I'm always tempted to remind such people that, if he paid his employees a little more, we wouldn't have to be meeting like this.

Tipping has clearly gone too far. As I see it, we do it out of fear. At one pricey restaurant not long ago I tipped extravagantly, chiefly to impress a new date. I must have been really smitten, because I also calculated the bill wrong and gave the waitress a 40 percent tip, rather than the 20 percent that I'd intended. (She didn't even thank me.) I've taken to tipping taxi drivers 20 percent, worried that they might back over me as I step out. Friends tip their barbers, wary of future botched hairdos. I've also found it's a good idea to tip the food-delivery man, too--and well. Otherwise, who knows what he might do next time you order a pizza "with everything."

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for a little baksheesh, as such petty inducements are known in Arabic. Tipping can make things happen faster and more successfully. But if it's required just to get the ball rolling, then it's not a tip, it's a bribe. In any case, I think the government should deal with this, maybe set up an agency for confused foreign visitors, or publish pamphlets called "Tipping for Dummies."

Las Vegas has it right. There some restaurant menus point out that a gratuity is added to the price of meals for parties of eight or more--and all foreigners. They should do that everywhere, in big bold letters. Like this, perhaps: THANK YOU FOR BEING OUR GUESTS. PLEASE LEAVE A BIG TIP--IT'S THE AMERICAN WAY.

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