British Tipping Culture

For the past decade and change, I have worked in restaurants. It was an unexpected and an unintentional career path. Like most people, I fell into the role. The summer job making some extra money turns into full time gig. The all too familiar story amongst us restaurant folk. I made the move to management rather quickly, for better or worse, as I switched to a salaried position from a tip based role, where doing the calculations for your true hourly wage (weekly salary divided by hours worked) was never advised.

Having spent years depending on tips before going into management, where I then managed staffs that relied solely on tips has had a profound impact on the way I approach the art of tipping. Like any true restaurant person, I am a chronic over tipper. Twenty percent for a server is the base tip and if I go somewhere where they know me and hook me up with a few extra goodies, I always tip on what the bill would have been with the additional items (please do the same people). I take major offence if I dine with someone who regales me with stories of when they worked at a restaurant only to watch them leave a fifteen percent tip.

Due to my background and strong opinions about tipping, you can understand why I find the tipping culture in the UK completely frustrating. I have read the guide books about the rules, but you have to be put in the situations to gain a full appreciation of the murky waters of tipping in the UK.

Most restaurants here add 12.5% service charge, which is noted clearly on the bill. However, others do not add any charge, while others will add it but tell you it is optional. Paying with a credit or debit card? Well, the house takes the 12.5% service charge on credit cards at many restaurants (how is that legal?), so if you want the money going directly to your server, you leave cash. Confused? There’s more.

Pubs are not restaurants so they have a different policy. Typically they do not have table service, so you order everything from the bar, including food. Tipping is not expected. I felt uncomfortable with that. Tipping was part of my moral fabric. So the first few visits to my neighbourhood pubs went something like this: I ordered beer, beer was delivered, I paid, I got change back, I left pound coin on bar, coin sat on bar for the next hour until I departed. The bartenders saw me out the coin down each time but simply ignored it and went about their business. Tipping made me feel like more of an asshole than not tipping. Mind blown.

This confusion extends to other areas as well. Getting a haircut used to be easy. The barber would ask if you would like to add anything to the bill. In NYC, I left $5 on my $16 haircut (one of the few good deals in NYC). I went to a nicer barber in Islington recently, expecting the same situation. I handed over my credit card, he processed it, thanked me for coming in, then walked away. Wait. How do I tip? I do not have cash on me and I cannot add gratuity in the credit card now. I hesitated, to the point where I felt awkward. I simply walked out.

Like any sensible person, when a question arises that I do not know the answer to, I turn to my best bud Google for support. Works every time. Except this time. Each article said something different. Tip 5%, tip £5, do not tip anything because haircuts are expensive, tip only if you really like the cut. Thanks for nothing Google. Ultimately, there is no single correct answer.

I have come to grips with the system to some extent. I play according to their rules (or lack thereof in some cases). The UK is not a tip based society like the US. I have to understand that. The culture is different. That is an important realisation to have; one that may seem simple and obvious. The UK and the US are similar in a myriad of ways, but it is the small things that makes each unique. I cannot appreciate the uniqueness of this new culture if I do not myself evolve to some extent.