Tip of the iceberg
Returning from ‘the trip of a lifetime’ to the Mississippi Delta in the US, my brain is fizzing with images, impressions, music and memories. It had been years since I experienced the sheer size and scale of America. Many years ago my first visit to the US was as a wild student who backpacked and crisscrossed the country on Greyhound buses from New York to Washington, Virginia, Atlanta, New Orleans, Texas, Idaho, Colorado, San Francisco, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Wyoming, Chicago and back to New York City over three months. I think I carried one full change of clothes, a sleeping bag and a toothbrush and not much else.
Returning as a grown-up was a very different adventure. This visit was a much more sedate affair, but there were some similarities. On this trip, as before, people were unfailingly polite, helpful and accommodating. But there was one aspect of which, if it was present when I was there as an impoverished student, I was blissfully unaware.
Now I had been told by friends who are more frequent visitors to the US that the culture of tipping there is significantly more widespread, but forewarned is not always forearmed, and I confess to at times finding it just a tad pushy. Wherever we went, there was always a plastic jar or bucket with a handwritten label saying ‘TIPS’ on view and people were not backwards in coming forwards to ask for one. It goes without saying that one expects to tip in restaurants and bars, but the practice seemed to have spilled over into all aspects of society. A guide on a bus tour rounded off her commentary by informing us all that she was still paying for her daughter’s wedding, so that if any of us could see our way to…
I think our patience was finally exhausted when we visited a travel agent to book tickets for a particular tour in New Orleans. The agent was full of good advice, made the reservation and took a deposit. As we were finalising a couple of details, I noticed that something had changed – on the counter between him and us a large plastic box had somehow materialised that was stuffed with dollar bills. We ignored the overt hint, took the receipt for our deposit and left.
Here in the UK, there has been considerable coverage of the culture of gratuities in restaurants in recent months. Chains such as Pizza Express, Giraffe and Café Rouge were found to be deducting a percentage of their service charges to cover ‘admin costs’, resulting in a much reduced tip going to the pockets of the waiting staff, and some independent restaurants admitted to pocketing all of the gratuities to pay for ‘upkeep’. Like many other people I started checking the restaurant I was eating in and leaving cash tips to ensure the person who served me actually received the money I felt was their due.
Tipping does have an interesting history and etymology; apparently the practice of tipping dates back to Tudor times in the 17th century, when guests staying in private houses would give money to the servants. These sums were known as ‘vails’. Subsequently, tipping started up in the coffee houses of London, and apparently the word ‘tip’ was first used as a verb in 1707 in George Farquhar’s play, The Beaux Stratagem, which I reviewed for damesnet last year.
In other languages the word refers to ‘money for drinking’, as in the French ‘pourboire’, and the German ‘Trinkgeld’. So have a drink on me, guys. The irony is that the Russian term for tip is ‘na chai’, which literally means ‘for tea’. Isn’t it ironic that a country with such an established alcohol habit offers a cuppa as a tip?
The term ‘gratuity’ comes from the French ‘gratuité’, which in turn is from the Latin, ‘gratuitus’ – ie free, or freely given. After some of my recent experiences, the word ‘freely’ is not one currently coming to mind. But maybe I’m just a curmudgeon.