To tip or not to tip, what is the answer?

As a Private Member's Bill seeks to regulate service charges, Jack O'Sullivan looks at our attitude towards this troublesome custom and how other countries cope

The British really do not care for tipping. It makes most of us feel awkward: we are not sure quite when to do it or how much to give. So we cower behind suburban nets when the postman, binmen and milkman come knocking for their Christmas bonuses. As for tipping porters, most of us would rather risk a collapsed vertebrae than give a fiver to a British Rail sherpa. And when we do part with a few coppers, we do not so much tip as run away without the change.

The customs that surround tipping in restaurants are particularly upsetting to the British. Many establishments now assume that they will receive a gratuity. A service charge automatically added to the bill feels like a con, mentioned, if at all, only in the small print on the menu. Just as you dig deep for a bill that looks like it requires a small mortgage, you discover another hefty slice, supposedly optional, on top when the bill arrives. And it's never clear who benefits from our largesse: is a tip lining a restaurateur's pocket or saving the waiter from starvation?

Despite general distaste for tipping, only the brave and the mean dare to refuse. After all, those deprived of their tip can cause terrible embarrassment: everyone has heard of the taxi drivers who storm off, bawling obscenities; the ship's steward who returns an ungenerous offering with the words, "I think you need this more than I do, sir." How many people have never dared return to a hairdresser's salon out of guilt for being short of cash last time and failing to leave the customary 10 per cent? And then there are the tales of nose-to-nose confrontations with New York waiters for whom a Brit's few hard-earned dimes are rarely enough.

The issue has always been messy for the British. Back in 1908, the Times published correspondence on the problems of visiting a friend's country seat and having to tip everyone from the housekeeper to the chauffeur. So costly had these incidental items become that one writer despaired, announcing that the time had "come for the man of small means to sell his guns and forget all about grouse and pheasants, and to cultivate golf as a casual recreation".

Part of British discomfort with tipping springs from its origins in a master-servant relationship, rather than as a transaction between equals. The origins of the word are uncertain. It is said to stand for "To Insure Prompt", a phrase coined as a financial incentive to Victorian stagecoach drivers who delivered letters. But the term is also traced by the Oxford English Dictionary to the early seventeenth century, when it meant "the giving of a gratuity to an inferior". The survival of tipping in Britain is, perhaps, a mark of how we still regard waiters as a subspecies, to be treated poorly, as if from below stairs.

The same is not true in other European countries, where waiting at table is considered a skilled profession that should be properly rewarded. Today, most of Britain's neighbours make service inclusive in the bill. In France, for example, a waiter's wage is not expected to depend on the whim of a customer: an extra 15 per cent service charge is automatically added to the price of food and drink. This sum is distributed to the staff, from the chef and the doorman to the hat-check staff. The concept of the tip survives, but a gratuity is meant to cover only especially good service. In short, the Continent has shaken off the feudalism that still bedevils the relationship in Britain between those who serve and those who are served.

This is the example that Lord Bradford, owner of Porter's restaurant in Covent Garden, would like to copy. He wants restaurants to charge prices that are fully inclusive of service, with notice that staff do not expect anything in the way of a tip or gratuity. He has introduced a Private Member's Bill into the House of Lords to that effect. The second reading of the bill is due on 10 January.

This measure would still allow exceptional service to be rewarded, at the customer's discretion. But it would outlaw cover charges, unless the restaurant provided specific entertainment, such as a floor show. Restaurants would also be required to fill in credit card slips in full when presenting them for signature. At the moment, some provide billing slips with a space left for a tip, even when the menu states that a service charge has already been included in the price. This means that some diners are fooled into paying a tip twice, which can, in theory, add a total of 30 per cent to the bill.

The Consumers' Association supports Lord Bradford's Bill because it makes life simpler for consumers. Some restaurateurs are not so sure: the change might increase their costs. As it stands, service charges are not generally included in the total price, so owners do not have to pay VAT or national insurance contributions on tips.

Those involved in waiting are not dancing on their tables with joy at the proposal. Nothing in the Bill requires that the service charge goes to the staff. So catering staff might not be any better off. Currently, fewer than half of all restaurant workers get to keep tips given by customers.

In any case, the chances of legislation reaching the statute book are slim. Last year Michael Fabricant, Conservative MP for mid-Staffordshire, tabled a similar measure, which died for lack of government support. Ministers have in the past ruled out a change in the law, preferring to let the catering industry regulate itself. So the hot tip is that the British diner will still be living with confusion and embarrassment in 1996.

Gratuities: who, when and where

Restaurants

n Normal practice is to tip the waiter 10 per cent to 15 per cent of the total bill

n If a service charge is included on the bill, it is rare for a customer to tip twice

n Fail to tip a waiter in New York and he or she will pursue you on to the street and ask you to pay 15 per cent of your bill

Taxi cabs

n Taxi drivers in London expect a tip of 10 to 15 per cent

n The custom is to tip black cabs but not minicabs

n Sydney taxi drivers do not expect tips; tipping is not the norm in Australia

Hairdressers

n Stylists expect a tip of about 10 per cent and a junior might be given pounds 1 or pounds 2

n It is not customary to tip the shop stylist or manager of the premises

n French salons do not expect their customers to tip

Station and airport porters

n Railway stations and airports provide trolleys for passengers ' luggage

n A porter service provided by specialised companies will set you back by about pounds 5

n Tokyo airport has no porters but at Frankfurt airport the porters expect a tip of about 1DM per item

Hotel porters

n Porters might receive a pounds 1 tip for carrying heavy bags

n A liveried doorman at a top London hotel can earn as much pounds 75 a week in tips

n In Singapore tipping is strictly prohibited; bags are always carried free of charge

Cruise liners

There is a tradition of tipping all staff on board a cruise ship. The custom is to wait until the day before disembarking

Christmas tipping: a guide to festive etiquette

The milkman

It is customary to tip the milkman during the festive season. Milkmen will often send each household a greetings card and receive tips ranging from pounds 1 to pounds 5.

The dustman

Solicited tipping is fading fast since local councils have prohibited the activity.

Each crew of dustmen might expect a tip of pounds 5 to pounds 10 per household and gifts of luxury food are also common.

The postman

Tipping the postman is not as common as tipping the milkman or the dustmen.

A donation of pounds 5 would be generous.

Paper boy or girl

A young boy or girl who delivers papers daily all year round might expect to make as much as pounds 150 in tips over the Christmas season.

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