Sorry about the cliché, couldn’t resist. The tipping I am concerned with here is money passed from the pockets of cafe and bar patrons to serving staff. Is this old world cap-doffing habit now a trend in New Zealand?
As a young man in England I was usually short of money and often embarrassed by the pressures to tip. I came to see tipping as a kind of blackmail in some cases and an unjust tariff in others. Why, I asked myself, should a waiter or porter or barber be tipped but not a street cleaner? Why should I subsidise the wages of people who earned as much or more than I did? My attitude hardened when I saw porters at a railway station rushing to carry of businessmen’s’ attaché cases while ignoring a young pregnant woman who looked as though her entire wealth was contained in the large suitcase she struggled to carry. I also observed porters of various kinds holding out their hands and staring challengingly at the timid or uncertain target of their intimidation. Resistance was difficult. The waiters on the ship that brought me to New Zealand collectively refused to serve me once they discovered I would not tip. So, imagine my delight as the ship eased up to the Auckland dock and I saw a big welcoming sign assuring immigrants and visitors that tipping was not customary New Zealand. That was 1968.
I’ve so enjoyed living in a country where tipping is unseemly that I had not given the subject much thought until recently when I began to notice ‘tips jars’ on the counters of cafes. That so piqued my curiosity I thought a little research was in order and checked out eight cafes and one bar in Wanaka. I spoke to one employer and nine employees. All but the bar had had a ‘tips jar’ prominently displayed, an initiative approved by employers.
Everyone I spoke to was in favour of tipping. As one well-travelled worker said, “The wages are terrible. They’re terrible in America and Canada too but at least the tips are good over there.” She went on to say, “It’s usually foreign tourists who tip, mostly Americans, it’s the culture there. I think Kiwis are told not to tip. If a Kiwi gives you a tip you remember it.” Thank goodness for that, I thought. But others noted that more and more locals were tipping. Because, said the only employer I spoke to, “It’s the only way they can show their appreciation.”
Typical of workers’ comments was, “It’s nice. (tipping) Makes us feel appreciated.” However, in one cafe the proceeds of the ‘tips jar’ are used to support a designated charity. And one worker I spoke to admitted welcoming tips despite a personal belief that it was wrong in principle. I can’t argue with that reasoning. If I were a lowly paid worker in the catering industry I’d probably put my principles aside too.
But not everyone shares my antipathy to tipping. I’m sure some people tip happily, without thinking. While others probably enjoy the opportunity to feel superior. Fortunately, at least in New Zealand, I doubt if there are many who feel intimidated into tipping. So, what’s my point?
The point is the rationale for tipping, “It makes us feel appreciated,” is untenable. The truth is that tipping is a cunning subsidy to employers of cheap labour. Long may a Kiwi’s tip be seen as a memorable experience.
© Chris Horan March 2008