Insider View - When is a tip not a tip?

Hilton ParkMy sister-in-law, who has uncompromising views of etiquette, keeps a visitors book in her house. Nothing odd about this, except that I noticed on the back page a list, written in her hand, of some of the names of her guests. I asked her what the people listed had in common and, reluctantly, she confessed that they were those who had not left a tip on departure. Her indignation with them was evident and this is a little strange because her ‘staff’ consists of one octogenarian collected an afternoon every week, given a cup of tea and a biscuit, and driven home again. More of a charity case than an employee. 

This obsession with tipping recently became topical due to the campaign by UNITE, the largest union in the UK and Ireland, against the practice of employers using tips to supplement the minimum wage. This is a disgraceful carry-on but one that is widespread, even in country houses. In a friend’s house, my husband watched as his host went round the bedrooms scooping up tips left by departed guests. “It goes towards the wages” was the explanation from this well-heeled individual.

Tips, however, are not part of the pay packet and this habit is exploitation. Not everyone agrees with this. My own sister thinks that all tipping should be abolished and everyone should be paid a fair wage. Why, too, do we tip taxi drivers, hair dressers and waiters but not the bus driver or the person working in the dry cleaners?

About 30% of our guests leave tips. These are pooled and divided among the staff since it seems unfair that only those on show should benefit. The most generous tippers are the Irish, and the meanest are the Americans. This is particularly irritating since in the United States you aren’t allowed out of a hostelry without leaving a tip. In a restaurant in LA, after a grindingly slow wait for a plate of indifferent pasta, we were told that our gratuity of 12.5% was not enough and the owner barred the door until we paid him 20%. Yet Americans in Ireland scrutinise bills like no others and ask for change in cents.

In The Man Who Ate Everything restaurant critic Jeffrey Steingarten talks about the school for waiters in New York that suggested the students added the words “For You” (as in “What can I get For You?) when dealing with customers. Apparently by adding these words their tips were doubled so don’t tell me that tipping is not de rigeur across the pond.

Naturally, service charges inhibit people from tipping. UNITE urges customers to ask restaurateurs where the money is going. As a tipper, I strive not to offend. This can go wrong: my daughter and I arrived at a hotel in Prague where our luggage was carried up to the bedroom with Ruritanian pomp. As we were not familiar with the Czech currency I scooped some coins out of a purse and with a “There you are my man” kind of munificence pressed these into his hand. We later discovered that I had given him the equivalent of a couple of cents and for the rest of our stay we slunk around trying to avoid him. The daughter, who worked in Dublin restaurants before the introduction of the euro, singled out the French for a deliberate misunderstanding of the punt when tipping with a handful of cents.

In a world that is becoming stamped with a dreadful uniformity, the idea that something as personal, even idiosyncratic, as tipping, should be standardised or eradicated, strikes me as a shame. The possible ubiquity of the service charge could have this effect. Recently in our area we have lost to outside pressures our post office, our fish shop, our local deli, a pub or two and the best clothes shop. You may wonder what this has to do with tipping, and on the surface very little, but it is all part of the slow eradication of choice.

We are losing a way of life that has taken centuries to evolve; vernacular architecture, local cultures, differences in land use, all these make places unique and interesting and they are being lost under a tide of uniformity. Our town centres are dominated by the supermarket giants, countryside is lost to car parks, the relentless march of the retail chains sweeps away all before them. We can’t do much about it, but we can reserve the right to reward good service with the proffering of a note or two straight into the hands of those who worked for it.

Together with her husband Johnny, Lucy Madden runs their magnificent 18th century mansion, Hilton Park, Clones, Co Monaghan as a country house which is open to private guests, groups, small weddings and conferences. The restored formal gardens are also open by arrangement. Lucy is a keen organic gardener and also a member of the Irish Food Writers Guild.

Kindly supplied by the respected food service and drinks industry magazine, Hospitality Ireland. Click here to read more about them Hospitality Ireland Magazine.


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