The crip, the tip and the crying waiter

by Laurence Clark

BBC Ouch 29th July 2010

Tipping waiters in restaurants as a disabled person can be a tricky business for lots of reasons. But following years of food bill blunders, Laurence reckons he’s found a solution.

According to British social etiquette, a restaurant customer should leave a tip of between 10-15% if they are happy with the service they’ve received. Service charges at restaurants are becoming more common in London and other large cities, although it is still legal to refuse to pay them if the customer is dissatisfied.

In America, however, tips tend to be more generous, and compulsory, rather than optional. People working in the service industries are typically underpaid, sometimes getting no wages at all, and rely heavily on it. Some American restaurants even print a helpful tipping guide on the bottom of the bill which readily calculates the amounts for a range of tips between 15% and 22%. This is probably for the benefit of tight British people like me who otherwise tend to just leave 10%, hiding behind the excuse that the maths is much easier to work out in your head.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have absolutely no problem with paying the going rate for whatever service I’m receiving. Neither could I live with the thought of having routinely exploited a poorly paid profession. Admittedly I don’t understand why we tip for some services but not others and base the amount on the price of the meal as opposed to the quality of the service.

But what I hate most about tipping is the innate social awkwardness that seems to surround it. In the past I’ve experienced situations where a waiter or taxi driver has point blank refused to take a tip from me. I guess in their eyes they’re being asked to accept some strange form of charity from a person they’d see as less well off than themselves.

Years ago, on one of my first visits to the States, I dared to fly in the face of convention and refused to tip a waiter because they had chosen to only communicate via my personal assistant for the duration of the meal. What does he want to eat? Can I cut up his food? He couldn’t even bring himself to make eye contact with me.

So, when this waiter returned at the end of our meal and presented the credit card slip to my PA, who duly passed it to me, I felt justified and more than a little smug in writing a big fat zero in the space for gratuity. At the time this seemed perfectly logical to my naive, British way of thinking. I hadn’t directly received anything approaching a service, therefore surely there was no reason to reward him?

Boy was I sorry!

The waiter started to walk away but suddenly stopped as he noticed his missing tip. As he stared in disbelief at my untidy scrawl on the tiny piece of paper in his hand, tears started to well in his eyes and his bottom lip began to protrude. In a moment of indecision he made as if to come back to our table, changed his mind, turned to walk away, then did an about-turn as he finally plucked up the courage to come over and demanded to be told what the problem was.

I was all geared up for an argument that never took place. Instead of defiant indignation, the waiter appeared to be horrified when I told him how badly he’d behaved. Through floods of tears he insisted on my filling out a complaints form and speaking to his manager, neither of which I particularly wanted to do because I’m generally not the sort of person who can be bothered with those sorts of things. He was so upset that we ended up reversing roles as I tried to console him. I even offered him the damn tip to try to put an end to the dramatic display of self-flagellation. I swear the only reason he refused it was to make me feel worse.

Nowadays, not only have I learnt my lesson, but on a recent trip to the States I even developed my own technique for avoiding the social awkwardness of tipping. This involves concealing the bank notes in the palm of my hand in order to secretly transfer them to the recipient during the course of a handshake. Not only does this work well but I also get the added enjoyment of watching their faces as they suddenly realised what is happening. Of course, by this point they’re already holding my money in their hand, making it a lot harder for them to then refuse my gratitude.

In conclusion, life would be a whole lot simpler if the price of a meal in a restaurant included all of the on-costs, such as the waiters, the chefs, the cleaners, the bar staff and anyone else who happens to be working there.

Have a nice day!

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