American in Spain


August 31, 2009

One difference between the US and Spain – and the rest of Europe, I think – is the practice of tipping in restaurants and bars. In the US, tipping is such a common custom that the waiters' salaries are reduced, sometimes below minimum wage, under the assumption that the tips that they make will put them back over the minimum wage. In Spain, waiters are paid at least minimum wage, and there is no tipping whatsoever. None. If the check comes and it says 4.80€, you put down a 5€ bill and you wait for the change to come back. That's the norm. I submit to you that the European system of non-tipping is inherently superior to the American system of tipping.

1) Myth: Service is better in the US because of tipping.

I have lived in Europe for over eight years now, and I can see no difference in the overall nationwide level of service between the US and Europe. This is, of course, only anecdotal evidence, and it would be awesome to see some hard data, like average wait time, etc. The problem is that good data on this topic would be impossible to obtain. There are too many other variables, e.g. server mood, how many customers in the establishment, how many waiters, what kind of food is being ordered, what quality and price of food is being ordered, waiter experience, etc. Anecdotal evidence is all we have to go on here, which renders this point completely a matter of opinion. However, if you you are an American and wish to argue this point after having spent a week in Paris, Barcelona, London, or Prague and never having left the tourist zone, I suggest you defer your opinion to an expatriate. I would love to hear what other American expats in Europe think about this, and especially from any European expats living in the US.

2) Tipping demeans waiters.

Across the entire service industry, from the cable guy to the auto mechanic to the barber, the person performing the service is, for the duration of the service, in a lower social position than the client. The client has requested something, and just sits there while they service provider is doing all the work. But the temporary difference in social standing is much greater for someone putting food on the table in front of you. It's one thing to say, "Bring me food," but it's another to say, "Bring me food, and if you are slow or don't smile at me, then I'm lowering the negotiated price!" Suddenly the waiter's social status has plummeted. It's demeaning.

Now that I think about it, I can't think of any other non-tipping-based service where the client has the right to raise or lower the negotiated price after the service has been provided. To anyone who has not grown up in that culture, the idea is ridiculous!

3) Tipping favors the rich over the poor.

Tipping is broken in the same way that the US Health Care system is broken. It unfairly gives rich people the power to hurt poor people on a whim. It's true that not all restaurant clientí¨le are rich, but it's also true that very rarely is a waiter much richer than their customer.


I admit that I have never worked as a waiter, but I have often imagined myself in their shoes, and it's this empathy that feeds my distaste in the American tipping system. I can't imagine that it's more common for a waiter to see a tip and think, "Hey, wow! What a nice tip!" than for him to see a tip and mumble, "Cheapskate!" under his breath. Surely the latter is at least twice as common. Isn't it obvious that the most fair thing to do is to just pay the waiter the extra 15% and let customers respond to bad service by either talking to management or just not going back to the restaurant (two things that they already do under the tipping system!)?

Points #2 and #3 are similar and are based on my distaste for the social divide between rich and poor. Even if I concede point #1 to you and agree that service is really better in the US because of the tipping system, that still doesn't make the injustice acceptable. And if you're an American waiter that disagrees with #2 and #3 and you think you make more in the tipping system than in a flat salary system, then A) there's still some flat salary that would equal your tipping income, and B) you must be one abnormally charming and attractive person.

I'd really like to hear the opinion of someone who has worked as a waiter on both continents.

If you disagree with me, please try to avoid ad hominem arguments attacking me as a cheapskate. I tip when I'm in the US because it's not the waiters' fault that the system is broken. If you're going to argue, tell me why you think the American tipping system is better than the flat salary, flat price system of Europe.

No, I don't know how to fix the problem, other than a blanket law and going cold turkey. It's painful, but I watched Europe convert to a new currency and it only hurts for a year or two. Ditto for the metric system. You just have to do it and recover from the change.

Update - 2009-09-17

I admit that I never really liked my argument in this post. It's the first post that I sent to someone to see if he had any ideas on how to improve the argument (he didn't). The main weakness is that my argument is entirely based on trying to put myself in someone else's shoes, trying to imagine what it is like to work a job I have never worked. One of the reasons I write these posts is to help myself organize my thoughts about a particular topic. Often times I don't have things very clear even when I finish the post. This is why I asked openly for opinions from waiters with experience in both continents.

I certainly didn't expect the level of response this post received. A fellow blogger by the name of Teleburst clearly disagreed with me strongly, because he wrote more than six thousand words, well over six times the length of my original post, informing me just how wrong I was. I have read every last one of them, and I must say that, when he gets around to it, he makes some very good points and raised some important issues I had not thought of. The restaurant and bar cultures in the US and Europe are sooooo different that – as I surmised in my original post – it's really impossible to compare the two in a way to isolate tipping as a variable.

This has been a learning experience for me. Primarily it has humbled me into realizing that my ability to empathize with others is a lot weaker than I assumed. It sounds to me like professional waiters, at least in the US, are a lot happier than I originally assumed they must be. Tipping is yet another issue where both sides have to be classified as different, but not necessarily better or worse.

Thank you to Teleburst for his patience in loquaciously educating me, despite me not being very nice to him at all.