Sunday, January 29, 2012

Tipping etiquette

The worst thing about tipping in the US is actually not the amount of money it costs. It's the pretense that it's discretionary, and all the confusion that spawns.

Everyone knows it's a crime against society not to tip a decent amount. And yet clear guidance about what that decent amount is, is hard to come by. If you pay by card in a New York taxi, you are offered the choice between adding 20%, 25% or 30% tip. But New Yorkers usually skip that screen and manually enter what they want to tip. 10% rounded up is the norm, although one New Yorker I know routinely tips a single dollar whatever the fare.

We broke this news to the New New Yorkers recently. They were annoyed to discover they had been overtipping for months. But delighted to think of all the money they'd save not hitting that '20% tip' button.

Taxis, now that I think about it, are pretty cheap. Most services garner a 20% tip. But again, it's not very clear. I usually tip five bucks on a $25 pedicure. But I heard of a friend of a friend who tips $25. Maybe she's getting her mani/ pedi somewhere rather fancier than me.

The 20% rule is fairly safe in restaurants. But not, confusingly, in bars. Then it's a dollar a drink in a dive bar, and anything above that in a fancy bar. Minefield. Especially after you've had a few drinks. As a result of the ensuing confusion I have tipped anywhere from 5% to 50% of my bar tab in the last two years. It's safer if TLOML is left in charge of these transactions (I know, quite the 'little woman' aren't I?).

Personally, I like the approach which prevails in most British restaurants, where a standard 12.5% service charge is calculated for you, but clearly marked as 'discretionary'. Last night we saw an interesting new take on this, at  Jules. It's a scruffy little bistro with great live jazz, in the East Village, run by the same experts in European-style afternoon drinking who run Cafe Noir.

TLOML and our clever finance-minded friend made the necessary calculations to split the bill by an odd number and allow for a couple of non-drinkers. Then added 20% tip, as you do.
At first sight, it's a $805 restaurant bill
 Just before we were about to hand over our cash, we spotted a line on the bill for a mysterious item called 'Autograt'. It was tucked away under tax. On further investigation, it transpires this is a standard 20% gratuity they add to the bill for tables greater than 6. Since the definition of gratuity implies it is freely given, we thought it was a bit cheeky to add it on. But what really bugged us was the unclear presentation.
Nothing says 'discretionary tip' quite like the word 'AUTOGRAT', eh?

A well-intended attempt to clear up the service confusion, or just a sneaky way to inflate the bill? I like Jules, so I'm inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. But judging by the reactions of our dining companions, I can't see this 'hidden tip' approach going down very well in New York. These Manhattanites won't be hoodwinked into paying any pre-determined charge.

I honestly think they prefer the confusion - for in confusion, there is freedom of choice.

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