Samui Wining & Dining
Social crutch or sheer generosity? Tipping turns out to be fiendishly complex.

Social crutch or sheer generosity? Tipping turns out to be fiendishly complex.The steak was being borne across the dining room on what looked like a roofing tile. The waiter was frowning with concentration, and I could see why: the steak came with gravy. A big, glutinous, wobbly dollop of it that seemed ready to slide off the tile. Maybe the chef had miscalculated on the glugginess of the gravy. Maybe the waiter just wasn’t skilled enough to keep the tile 100% horizontal (who would be?) and it really was a roofing tile. As he placed it on the table, I watched the gravy make a dash for the edge, burst through the skin that held it together and splatter into my lap. Between plate and trousers it seemed magically to have tripled in volume. The waiter was aghast and was soon joined by the manager. We got some complimentary desserts that night, and enthusiastic apologies.


At the end of the meal, as I usually do, I left a tip for the waiter. I walked around with the gluggy trousers on for the rest of the evening, a reminder of what had happened. This was the United States, and tipping was expected. Regardless of that, I tend to tip anyway. I was sure that the incident wouldn’t happen again to anyone else, but besides, it wasn’t my job to teach anyone a lesson concerning the usage of roofing tiles.


But wearing cold trousers for an evening, and seeing passers-by look in disgust (that gravy could not have been browner) did make me question the custom of tipping. And years later, as I write this article, I still haven’t really formulated a definite opinion about it. Strange that. After all, it doesn’t appear to be a complicated issue, but it turns out to defy analysis. Is tipping a gift of money to say thank you, or is it simply part of a payment for services rendered? Then of course, it all depends on which country you’re visiting and what kind of establishment.


And there’s no doubt about it, tipping is a very, very grey area. Some people say that the very act of tipping – supposedly a generous gesture – fosters poverty, because employers can get away with lower, and in some cases unfair wages, and tell the employees that they’ll be making large tips. You might be as surprised as I was to learn that in the Soviet Union (surely at the forefront of class struggle) that tipping was really frowned upon. You were definitely not helping anyone by tipping. Gratuities were a vestige of the old capitalist system – the very system that had caused so much unrest. Instead everyone deserved a fair wage.


Nobody has ever managed to eradicate tipping. It’s been around since the Middle Ages, when the British, staying as guests in someone else’s house, would give money to the servants who had helped them. In those days, there were a lot of servants, and each had to have a tip, called a ‘vail’. Over the years, the tips were given to fewer of the servants. And in today’s world, when tips aren’t given to all and sundry, the mystery is why some professions have been left out of the tipping programme. Waiters and waitresses all expect to get a tip in many parts of the world, but what about those who’re slaving away behind the scenes – the cooks, for example. Are they really on a good wage? And what about the person washing the dishes? Definitely a low-paid job, that, and usually no tips find their way to the person slaving over the sink.


Recent research showed that nearly 15% of America’s 2.4 million waiters and waitresses live in poverty, compared to 7% of all workers. That’s an enormous number. Yet, despite this, tipping was once considered demeaning and anti-American. In modern times some media outlets have slated tipping, and have called it an abomination. The New York Times’ restaurant reviewer, Pete Wells, said the current tipping system in the USA “is irrational, outdated, prone to abuse and sometimes discriminatory. The people who take care of us in restaurants deserve a better system.”


In saying this, he’s backed up by research. Tips are arbitrary, and some people get more than others. Studies show that diners tip more when a waitress wears ornamentation in her hair, or when the server repeats orders back. And apparently in the United States, some consumers confessed they tipped more if the waitress was attractive.Social crutch or sheer generosity? Tipping turns out to be fiendishly complex. (Waiters, by the way, don’t get tipped extra for being handsome, it appears.)


Whatever, the truth is, it’s outweighed by the fact that waiting staff don’t generally earn well. In many countries, tips are really desperately needed because workers just aren’t paid a decent wage by their employers, and it’s only because of tips that they can get by.


But what, you’ll want to know, is the situation here in Thailand? The first thing to be aware of is that wages in Thailand are low. Most people work very long hours and for little remuneration. It’s quite common for workers to have no days off at all during high season. But despite the low wages, it turns out that tipping is a relatively new custom in Thailand; there’s no mandate to give a tip to anyone. However, in all restaurants it’s usual to leave behind any loose change in coins. In more upscale restaurants, if the service is good, it’s customary to leave a larger tip of 5%-10%.


It’s certain that if you give a tip, it will be greatly appreciated. If you’re in a hotel, for example, the waiting staff will be very happy if you leave a tip. So too will the person who carries your bags to your room. Similarly you can leave money under your pillow for the cleaning staff – it can take, after all, up to 45 minutes to thoroughly clean a room. Many restaurants and hotels on Samui already include a 10% service charge in the bill. The idea is that this extra money is pooled and shared between all employees.


Some people, knowing how low wages are, give tips to just about everyone. Occasionally, a Thai will try to give you back your tip, simply thinking you have made a mistake. It’s certainly become customary to tip some people more substantially, for example, hairdressers and masseuses, who may well earn only a small wage. It’s up to you how much you leave but many customers will add in another 100 Baht if they’re happy with the service.


Tipping is part of the global culture, and despite occasional efforts to ban it in places, it always bounces back. It’s here to stay. And in Thailand, it’s gaining ground. With the country’s abysmal wages and the fact that all workers are expected to help support their families by sending money home, your tip goes a long, long way both metaphorically and physically. On Samui most workers come from the poorest part of the country, Isaan, and they’re usually a life-line for the rest of the family. You can be sure that your tip always counts.


Dimitri Waring



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