This first extract is from my trip to Canada, the second country I visited in the book. In amongst the mullet hunting, I was able to spend time with family in the town of Barrie, Ontario. A night out with my cousin exposed me to the absurd pitfalls of North American tipping. The photo is an outline of the now-demolished town hall in Barrie, an oddity I mention in the same chapter.
Downtown Barrie was everything I imagined of small town North America. It was bland and soulless, with straight roads, featureless modern buildings and very little sense of place. The couple of bars we drank in were thoroughly pleasant, though in the first one I was reminded of the etiquette minefield that is North American tipping habits.
I have an inherent gripe with the concept of tipping. Not because I’m stingy — where good service warrants it, I’m happy to do it — but because it so often illustrates that the tippee is receiving a pitiful income that is so far removed from what is required for a decent standard of living that they require tips to make life financially viable.
Tom and I had sat at the otherwise empty bar, and I ordered us a couple of beers from the barman, a middle-aged guy with a thick mane of hair that verged tantalisingly on being a mullet.
The barman put my change, a two-dollar coin, in front of me next to my beer, and then I became aware of Tom mouthing something to me. I realised he was saying “tip!” in as inauspicious way as he could with the barman hovering nearby.
I’d forgotten about this and should have immediately gestured to the barman to keep the two dollars before he brought it over, but it was too late now. What could I do? If I picked the coin up and handed it back it would look like I’d changed my mind about tipping or taken sudden pity on the barman, which might seem insulting. I thought about just leaving the coin where it was with the nonchalant pretence that I had intended to leave it there as a tip all along, but the problem with that was that the coin was sitting so close to my glass that it was definitely in my personal space. To just leave it there until we left might make me look like I didn’t care about the money and had forgotten about it. All I could do was surreptitiously, and without looking, nudge it millimetre by millimetre away from my glass while talking to Tom.
This was a difficult and painstaking operation. I was furtively edging the coin back into the “neutral zone” between myself and the barman, while simultaneously conducting a conversation with Tom and keeping half an eye on the barman so he didn’t notice what I was doing, which was not easy given the bar was quite short and he rightly wanted to remain close and attentive to his only customers. I am sure I failed in my reparations, and I can only hope that my accent and manners made me stick out like a tourist and made the barman aware exactly of the pitfall I was stuck in.
The experience taught me a useful reminder, and I was sure to tip (albeit grudgingly) for the rest of my time in the country. To be honest, though, the Canadian authorities really ought to issue leaflets at immigration, perhaps also offering some short video tutorials or role-play situations so you can get your tipping etiquette perfected before you properly enter the country.
Advocates of tipping, of course, say that when folk working in restaurants or bars depend on tips then they’ll do their very best to provide good service. And North America, beyond the cheesy “have a nice day” cliché, really does provide a standard of customer service that puts the UK to shame. My work takes me across the UK and it is frustratingly apparent that good customer service at home is a rare thing indeed. Yet nothing can ever beat a classic moment in my final year at university, when I was in the pub having lunch with some friends. After the passing of what seemed like ice ages as we awaited our food, a barman came over and said “sorry about the wait, guys, we’ve only got one chef on today and he’s shit.”
Mind you, the idea that such awful service should justify lowering the minimum wage for service industry workers so that they depend on tips and buck up their act accordingly does offend my humanitarian principles somewhat.
A minefield, as I say. I’m disappointed the United Nations has yet to commission an investigation into the issue worldwide, in order to come up with a universal standard approach that ensures a balance between a living wage, good service and the avoidance of awkward situations like I encountered in the bar with Tom.