Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie

[Blogger’s note: I was born and raised in America, moved to Canada for love in the early 2000s, and recently relocated again, in my 50s, with my British-born spouse to the southern coast of his homeland. This is an occasional series about learning new tricks in Merry Old England.]

Keep the Change – No, You Keep the Change! The Tricky Business of Tipping in the U.K.

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Illustration by Jeff Cohen

The spouse and I ventured to Winchester one Sunday this spring to see a favourite singer-songwriter perform at a rustic pub near the town’s train station. While waiting for the show to begin, I sauntered up to the bar and ordered a lager, forking over a fiver to the sullen barman behind the taps. He slid the pint towards me and deposited the change, a 50-pence piece, into my outstretched palm. “Mind if I leave this with you?” I asked, hand still thrust toward him. He peered at me with a marked expression of distaste, as if I’d replaced the shiny coin in my grasp with an eviscerated dung beetle, or a ball of freshly foraged belly button lint, or a teeny-tiny MAGA hat. “I’d… rather you not,” he huffed, and folded his arms tightly across his chest as if to further protect himself from our toxic transaction. “Well, okay then,” I muttered, sheepishly pocketing the pence. I slunk away feeling like I’d committed some grievous faux pas akin to clipping my toenails during a church sermon, or publicly declaring that I actually enjoyed the Game of Thrones finale.

In the U.S., where I’ve spent most of my life, you’re not just expected to tip for many daily services, it’s practically perilous if you don’t.  The minimum tipped wage there is only $2.13 – though some states have opted for nominally higher pay—so restaurant servers and others count on tips for their livelihood.  Tip nothing or too little in your average U.S. eatery and you risk getting shouted at as you exit, shamed online, and having your soup contaminated with lord-knows-what should you ever dare to dine there again. It’s also considered appallingly bad manners to withhold gratuities from hotel bellhops, coffee shop baristas, tour bus drivers, coatroom attendants, public restroom attendants, and so on and so on.

When I moved to the U.K., I lugged with me the baggage of an ingrained, fear-fuelled compulsion to tip. It was a relief then to discover that tipping isn’t as obligatory for Brits as it is for Americans and Canadians and that, generally speaking, it’s “a thanks for good service and not an automatic right,” to quote my astute Arundel friend Craig. In the U.K. the law mandates that employees in the service sector be paid at least the same minimum wage as everyone else, currently £8.21 for workers 25 and older, or just above $10 US, based on the exchange rate as of this posting. This means gratuities are thought of as a bonus and are more dependent upon the quality of the experience. It is common in British restaurants to tip 10%– in London, of course, it’s 12.5% — but if the service is snail-paced or your order is mishandled or the waiter is snippy, it’s perfectly acceptable to leave no tip at all, or to have the service charge removed from your bill if it is included. In the States, we punish rude and/or incompetent servers by only tipping them 15% instead of the standard 20%. Boy, does that show them who’s boss!

My dilemma is that I’ve yet to shake the nagging homegrown urge to tip that followed me here and it can sometimes clash with the local customs. To me, tipping 10% seems like a pittance, even if my server makes £8.21 an hour, or perhaps because he or she does. That’s not Jeff Bezos-level take-home pay, after all. When I’m out for dinner with the spouse and friends, I’ll often try to surreptitiously slip a few additional coins into the gratuity pot. My companions will invariably catch me doing this and shoot me their patented “tut-tut, silly American” looks, but mild consternation is a small price to pay to feed my tipping addiction.

In other service realms, tipping guidelines seem to be to be all over the place, which can leave an expat unsteady on his feet. Some Portsmouth cab drivers have gladly accepted my donation of a quid for, say, a £5.50 fare, while others have handed me back change, insisting that proper protocol is to round up to the nearest pound. (London cabbies are slightly less etiquette-minded, methinks.) I’ve tipped grocery delivery boys and barbers and been asked “Are you sure?” Like they were giving me the chance to have a good think about what I was doing and realize the error of my ways.  And there have been one or two instances of stunned, almost embarrassingly fervent gratitude. “Oh, that’s so very, very kind of you,” gushed the lad who schlepped a bulky Sainsbury’s order up to our second-floor flat, as he gaped at the three pound coins I’d placed in his palm. “Now I can get me lunch!” It was as if, without my small act of kindness, the poor dear would have gone hungry for the entire day. What are you paying these fellows, Sainsbury’s?

From what I gather, one place you simply don’t tip in the U.K. is in a pub, which might explain the Winchester pint puller’s peevishness. I witnessed an even more curmudgeonly example – thank goodness I wasn’t directly involved – one boozy evening at a venerable hole-in-the-wall tavern in Portsmouth. Noticing a pound coin left behind on the bar, the publican snatched it up and stomped out from behind the taps, brandishing the quid aloft. “WHO’S IS THIS?!” he barked at the crowd. A bloke nearby tentatively raised his hand and the bartender slammed the coin down on the table in front of the rattled punter.

“There’s the look of a showoff if someone is in that scenario and they’re tipping,” says my Wirral-bred buddy Ian, trying to identify the red rag to that bullying barman. (Though he surmises such intense umbrage is rare.) “They’re being a bit flash.” Fair enough, but I say this to you, dear British people, if you think ponying up a pound is being “flash,” please, I beg you, don’t ever go to Las Vegas. You’d never stop harrumphing! If you ask me, the publican’s tetchy attitude says more about his own thin skin than the customer’s thick wallet.

My Portsmouth pal Tim, who has pulled a few pints in his day, speculates that some pub owners might not allow employees to keep any money on their person during their shift, making it more difficult for them to steal from the till. (A business strategy taught at the Ebenezer Scrooge School of Applied Tightwaddery, I believe.) He recommends a traditional British alternative: When ordering a round of drinks, invite the bartender to buy one for himself and put it on your tab. Not to question your tried-and-true traditions, Britain, but this strikes me as a far more ostentatious and condescending gesture than merely plonking a bit of dosh down on the bar top. I can picture some smug aristocrat in a top hat and waistcoat flouncing up to the taps, ordering an excess of pricey aperitifs, then adding, in plummy Shakespearean tones, “And purchase a libation for thyself, my good man! Bejewel it with ice and lime if you so desire! How fortunate you are to have such a benevolent patron as I! Now if you’ll forgive me, I simply must get these brandy snifters back to Mimsy and Wigbert. They are positively parched!” I’m assuming that’s how these encounters usually go, am I right? In any case, even if I could bring myself to suggest such a thing, what’s to stop the bartender from pouring himself a tall, cool tumbler of Dom Perignon and charging it to my card? Do I say, “And buy a drink for yourself, barkeep, but you know, a cheap one, maybe something from the bottom shelf?” I can’t afford to throw too much money around, as I’m saving up for night courses at the local tightwaddery college.

Even within this long-established ban on pub tipping, there appears to be a little wiggle room. I’ve tipped in trendy brew pubs and hipster hangouts and it’s gone down a treat. From my limited research, a correlation has emerged: The more traditional the pub, the less welcome the tip. So I’ve come up with my own rule of engagement for these situations. Should I find myself in some musty old-fangled country tavern called the Stag’s Head or the Shepherd’s Crook or the Queen’s Spleen, with rural folk in their muddy Wellies drunkenly singing ancient folk songs around a crackling fire and a wizened creature who looks like one of those Gringott’s goblins from Harry Potter manning the taps, I’ll stride confidently up to the bar and order a pint. I’ll pay the goblin cheerily and accept whatever change is given without incident. Then I’ll say, “Ooh, I almost forgot, can I get a packet of pork scratchings as well? There they are, just behind you.” And when he turns to retrieve the snack, with ninja-like stealth I’ll hide a few coins under the beer mat, to be found by the barman, much to his displeasure, hopefully after I’m long gone. Then I’ll retreat to a cozy corner with my lager and a satisfied grin on my face, reveling in the knowledge that I HAVE WON. I’ve beaten the goblins at their own game, and my compulsion to tip remains robust and unchallenged.

Because for me, parting with a pocketful of loose change is easy. But actually changing? That’s hard.

 

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One thought on “Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie

  1. Pingback: Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie | dugoutdiscs

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