Sacred Mysterious Rite of the Tip
Dirk Strasser examines the gratuity, an ancient American ritual which leaves many Australians confused.
Question : What is the difference between an Australian and a canoe?
Answer : A canoe sometimes tips.
Cartoon by Ian Sharpe appearing with original article
There is a great deal of truth to this riddle which has done the rounds of the American tourist industry. It exposes the greatest gulf between our two cultures. It is not that Australians don't tip, they simply can't tip. Tipping is un-Australian. It is an unnatural act. It is obscene.
Of course, there are those of us who realise very quickly during our first trip to the US that it is sometimes necessary to acquire obscenity in order to survive. You learn very quickly that tipping is a ritual in America and that unless you divine its nuances, you will remain a spiritual outcast.
Even if you've convinced yourself to fight your natural urges, the way to enlightenment is not an easy one. You are tarnished with an Australian accent. The moment you open your mouth you can see those Donny Osmond smiles droop. Only slightly, though, because these people are true professionals. Although you have been tainted with the collective guilt of a million antipodean travellers, your waiter will still believe he is in with a chance and he will save any real unpleasantness for after the act. This is American justice at work : you are innocent until proven guilty, except, well... hell we pretty much know what's gonna happen, don't we?
It's the porters who prove to be the first embarrassing hurdle in your initiation. Jeez, these blokes are helpful. But why are they still hanging around after they've put your bags on the minibus to your Anaheim hotel? Suddenly you remember all those scenes from the old Hollywood movies. You don't like embarrassing silences. It's the first day of your holiday, you want to enjoy yourself, you don't want this feeling of discomfort. But how much do you give them? You really wouldn't have a clue. In all the old movies the skin-flint never gives enough. And they were old movies. So what do you do?
"There you go." you say. Jeez, he was grinning from ear to ear so you know you've given him way too much. Make a mental note. You can zero in on the correct amount eventually - after enough mistakes.
The next mistake is just waiting to happen. It's inevitable after you see that Diner across the street from your hotel. You're hoping it will be just like stepping onto the set of an old Hollywood movie. Unfortunately, it's going to be a comedy. You want to order a coffee and a hunk of pie - it would make it seem more authentic somehow. But you're pretty hungry, so you decide to go for the steak. How could you have messed it up so badly? Try to remember next time that the correct response to "Well?" is not to repeat that you want a steak but to say "No, medium thanks." But the real problem is still to come. The docket says pay at the cash register. How can you tip if you don't pay the waitress at your table? You make a decision based on your limited experience. Of course it's wrong. You can tell you've committed another fauxpas by the bewildered look on the face of the woman at the cash register when you give her the extra money and point to the waitress saying "This is for her." You've made another mistake. How were you supposed to know that you should have left the tip on the table?
You've enjoyed the day tour of LA, the tour guide was particularly friendly and helpful. You've found out that it's not Graumann'sChinese Theatre any more, that it's just Mann's and that it has been for a long time. You learn that your handprint is exactly the same size as Tom Sellek's. You discover that the correct spelling is VeniceBeach and that it wasn't just American pronunciation of Venus. You found out that you would have caught a glimpse of Jimmy Stewart pruning his roses if you had taken yesterday's tour. You also found out that you only have to repeat everything two or three times before the tour guide understands what you're saying. What you haven't found out is how much you're supposed to tip the bloke at the end of the day. He didn'tlook too happy with the two dollars you gave him but, well, you're still learning.
It's only when you sit down in a restaurant that you start to feel some confidence. This is one situation you can handle. You even tipped once or twice back in Australia, in a fit of madness. But there are some bad omens as the night wears on. You can't get out of the habit of saying "I'm right thanks," even though you've finally realised it doesn't mean anything in the US. And you are beginning to doubt whether this famous American "service" is quite what it's cracked up to be. It's only a little irritating when the waiter thinks he can put on Australian accent just because he's seen `Crocodile Dundee'. You also feel like pointing out that the plural form "G'day mates," simply isn't in use. But you don't bother because you don't want to get into a conversation with the condescending bastard.
The real trouble starts at the end of the meal. This is a new one for you. What the hell do you ask for? It's not the "bill", that would be too easy and, besides, something in your television memory needles you, telling you it's wrong. You can't seem to get it into focus though. That's the trouble with anything to do with television : it's not real. Think... what is the right word? The "account"? The "cheque"? Or how about avoiding the problem altogether by saying "I'd like to pay." Something tells you "cheque" is correct but you can't seem to get the word out of your mouth. "Can we have the... um..."
"Yes," you say gratefully, until you notice that faintly amused turn to his lips.
You learn very slowly, mainly from fellow Australians. You can't seem to broach the subject with the Americans you meet. You don't want to expose yourself, and they wouldn't understand anyway. Is it 10% or 15%? Waiter's wages are much lower than their Australian counterparts. No double time or even time-and-a-half. You've even heard that they get taxed on what the Government assumes they'll make in tips. Jeez, that means they'll lose money if you don't tip them. So tip them. Just leave it on the table as you go. It's not really that different to Australia ... who are you kidding?
So you do tip. You give them their bloody gratuity. Boy, were you glad to get rid of all those coins that were weighing your wallet down. What was that word of insult you heard as you walk out the door? Wasn't it enough? Hell, how were you supposed to know that a swag of coins, no matter how much they add up to, is taken as a personal insult. You'll never work these yanks out!
You eventually reduce the gaffes: a hint here, a clue there. You watch others, trying desperately to pick up how it's done. Relatively insignificant scenes in movies you've seen years ago become meaningful learning experiences. But you never really understand it. It's a sacred rite whose observances we, as outsiders, can mimic but whose deeper nuances remain forever locked away from us. It is a matter of what you've grown up with. Perhaps thereis only scant difference between the sacred and the obscene.
It's easy for the obscene nature of tipping to bubble to the surface again as you ruminate on the subject during your taxi ride back to LA Airport. You think of all the money you could have saved if you hadn't striven with such fervour for edemption. At least you're safe now, no more angry waiters, no more anxiety attacks when smiling faces hover helpfully in your presence. The canoe is in calm waters again. But hang on... it's not quite over... how much are you going to give the cab driver?
The Age Saturday Extra 2 September 1989
The Canberra Times 10 March 1991