I recently returned home after a three week Canadian adventure which blew my mind in about seventeen different ways. I loved pretty much everything about it. Canadian nature, Canadian cities and towns, and above all Canadian hospitality. Canada ain’t cheap, actually it’s the most expensive holiday I’ve ever had, but it is a world class travel destination and I’m so glad I went. With the notable exception of a coffee shop chain called Tim Hortons which should immediately be declared a national embarrassment, I would recommend Canada to anybody. (To balance out that Tim Hortons slap, I would however like to shamelessly plug another Canadian coffee shop chain called Second Cup. Now that’s how you make a good cup of coffee!)
Pretty much the only thing that I didn’t gel with on the whole trip, and it’s something I have never really been able to wrap my head around, is tipping culture. Here in Australia you only tip if you feel you’ve received particularly excellent service, and I think that’s the way it should be everywhere. Seriously, can’t we just drop the whole charade?
In Canada it is customary to tip a minimum of 15% and for anyone who is used to tipping that’s probably not something they devote much thought to, but from an Australian perspective I find the whole idea completely ludicrous. I do however get that tips are how servers make their money, so as the kind of traveler who tries not to be a complete arsehole where possible I just grit my teeth and play along.
The performance starts the moment you walk in and get seated. The server starts putting on a show, and you can sniff their desperation. I feel sorry for them, which in turn makes things uncomfortable for me. They shouldn’t have to act like a trained seal to get paid. The restaurant should just damn well pay them what they are worth. Since when did balancing the books of someone else’s restaurant become my job? And beyond that, who actually gets my tip anyway? If it’s only my server who ends up with the money I have issues with that. Shouldn’t the person who actually prepared the meal get an equal if not greater share of the spoils than the person who brought the plate to my table?
And it’s not just tipping that gets me. What’s with the idea of telling me the price, and then adding the sales tax afterwards? How annoying is it to rock up to the cash register with a twenty dollar note to pay for an item that is tagged as costing $19.99, thinking you’ve got this nailed, only to find out that the actual price is some seemingly completely random amount like $23.96? Oh for fucks sake! Can you not just put the actual price on the price tag? Call me crazy, but I’m one of those “just tell me what it costs and I’ll tell you if I’m willing to pay it or not” kind of guys.
Same deal with haggling. I find zero joy in bargaining, possibly in no small part because I am awful at it. I once spent ten minutes haggling over the price of something at some markets in Vietnam only to work out once I got back to the hotel and grabbed a calculator that I had just spent a chunk of my precious holiday time arguing over what equated to eight Australian cents.
I found it fascinating on this recent Canadian trip that when it was time to pay the server not only brought the machine over for card payments (That does not happen in Australia. Here you still have to go to the counter to pay. Why, I have no idea…) but that the machine automatically prompts you to tip and even calculates it for you. I guess when it comes to draining your wallet they want to make things as seamless as possible. Who can blame them?
Here’s how it works: You press OK on the total for the meal, then you are prompted with “Add Tip?” Press OK again and you’re presented with your ever so helpful tipping options. You can either stipulate the dollar amount you want to tip or you can choose to tip as a percentage, usually starting at 15%. For this specific thing I am very grateful ‘coz the last thing I generally feel like doing at the end of the meal is maths on the fly. Then once the machine ever so helpfully adds it all up, you press OK, and you’re out of there safe in the knowledge that your server won’t be working for free today because some ignorant Aussie tourist didn’t tip them properly. (There were a couple of occasions in Canada where the lowest percentage presented on the machine was 20%, which immediately prompted me to think “how dare you try to fleece me like that, I’m starting this transaction all over again and you’re only getting ten percent!”)
The whole tipping thing is head-doing, and that performance the server has been putting on ceases the moment the credit card transaction is approved. At that point you no longer exist. Try it. Say goodbye on your way out of the restaurant and see if you even get eye contact. I didn’t. It felt like, “Show’s over, I got paid, you’re dead to me now” and I totally get it. I’d do the exact same thing.
I’m all for people getting paid for their services, but surely there’s a better way to go about it than the tipping system? Here’s a wacky idea: Just incorporate the money needed to make sure everyone gets paid in the cost of the food, then let people decide if they want to pay for it or not. Then, if a server does get a tip, they’ll know it’s because they were great at their job, not just because of a ridiculous and outdated pre-existing expectation.