When I first started paying for my own restaurant meals as a University student in Montreal, I was shocked to discover that people were leaving an additional 15% of the value of their meal as “tips”. I didn’t really understand why I had to spend more money. After all I was already paying for my food (at an inflated cost which included labour I assumed) and the restaurant owners were paying their employees, so why the extra money? My fellow students seem outraged that I refused to “tip” so I ended up succumbing to peer pressure, and eventually it became a “habit”.

Several years later I came to understand that the reason for the tips is that waiters in Canadian restaurants do not make a “living wage” and rely on tips to survive. Well, that still doesn’t seem right to me. Why should I pay part of the waiter’s salary? Why doesn’t the restaurant pay them fair wages, like in other jobs?

While tipping is normal behaviour in Canada and the USA, this is not the case in large parts of the world. Restaurant staff in many countries do not expect tips because they are earning living wages. However, if you are a North American conditioned to tip, you may feel reluctant to not leave change on the table as you settle your bill. You should educate yourself before you do so, because not only could it be unnecessary, it could be viewed as an insult.

Tipping in France

Take Japan for example. Any attempt to tip your waiters will be politely refused. Repeatedly. You are probably insulting them, but they are too polite to show it. Imagine someone trying to tip you for doing your job! In Australia and New Zealand, tipping is not expected either. It’s the same story in several European countries such as France and Belgium, although rounding up the bill to the nearest Euro is appreciated. A French friend told me that no matter what the total bill is in France, leaving one Euro per person on the table is more than enough. This seems hard to believe for tip-conditioned North Americans, but that’s the way it is. I find it quite a relief actually.

While people tip 20% in cities like Los Angeles (yikes!), no more than 10% or even 5% is expected in many other places. In some countries, such as Spain, the law requires menu prices to include the service charge (often called “cover”, “couvert” in French, or “cubierto” in Spanish). Check the menu carefully for the small print that specifies that service is already included. You could leave some additional small change if you’re so inclined, since the cover charge may be used mostly to cover cutlery and bread (and may not make it to your waiter), but 5% is usually plenty.

Before travelling to a new destination, look up this information online or in your guidebook to avoid tipping when it is not necessary. Or ask a local person. Otherwise, instead of coming out as generous, you’ll probably look like just another clueless tourist.

Similarly, tipping the owners of a business doesn’t really make sense. The purpose of tips is to complement employees’ low salaries when you receive good service. So if the service was horrendous, you don’t need to tip either!

When I help myself to a buffet, I usually reduce my tips accordingly since the waiter’s involvement is minimal. However I know people who tip the full rate regardless. When eating in a large party, a fixed service charge may be added to your bill, and this is usually noted on the menu.

Unlike Canada, many countries also include the tax in their prices. So what you see, is what you pay. No surprises when the bill comes. I like it! 🙂

What is your country’s policy regarding tipping? Enlighten us by answering in the comments!