The ongoing debate about tipping culture in the United States has been reignited with the recent news that employees at the first-ever unionised Apple Store in the US are proposing asking for tips. It has sparked intense debate about tipping culture in North America, which people believe is getting out of control. Already, buzzwords like "guilt tipping", "tipping fatigue", "tip creep", "viral tip shaming" and "tipflation" are creeping into the lexicon.
The divisive practice has spread across the world – most recently causing controversy in Spain – but not everywhere embraces the culture with such vim and vigour as Americans do. In France, "service compris" means the gratuity is already included in the bill. In other places, particularly in East Asia, the lack of any tipping tradition is a source of pride.
To highlight the age-old tipping dilemma, here are places with their own distinctive tipping traits, each picked because of what they say about the culture of appreciation and how their tipping attitudes reflect wider aspects of society.
Never tip in Japan, apart from your server at a ryokan – and there's rules around this too (Credit: AzmanL/Getty Images)
Received wisdom has it that Japan is the sort of ascetic paradise where litter is unheard of, imperfection (or wabi-sabi) is honoured and social consciousness is elevated into an art form (don't walk while eating; be quiet on public transport; don't point with hands or chopsticks; don't blow your nose in public – the list goes on).
It's also a place where tipping isn't just uncommon; it's considered embarrassing and awkward. And, since the Japanese have a tip-free service culture, it really needs to be spelled out to the foreign visitor with a think-twice warning: do so and you'll cause offence.
"Even if travellers are told Japan doesn't tip, some people are still keen to show their appreciation with money – but it doesn't work like that," said James Mundy of UK-based tour operator InsideJapan Tours. "It's common for people to leave money for waiting staff at restaurants, then be chased down a road and given their money back. Many cannot understand people do their job with pride, and an 'oishikatta' (it was delicious), or a 'gochiso sama''thank you for preparing the meal) will go down very well. Money doesn't always talk."
The Japanese revulsion to tipping is palpable. Shokunin kishitsu, which roughly translates to "the craftsmanship", flows through many aspects of Japanese life and is a philosophy perfected by many in tourist-facing industries, from hotel bellhops to food cart vendors to sushi chefs. Service is about the bare necessities of doing a job with pride, and appreciation is most commonly shown through compliments (preferably in Japanese) or by bowing.
But one exception applies: in ryokans, Japan's traditional tatami-matted guesthouses, travellers can leave money for the nakai san (the kimono-wearing server who prepares your food and futon), but only when done properly. Don't hand over a tip in person; instead seal pristine notes in a specially decorated envelope.
Meaning a tip or charitable alms, baksheesh has the power to unlock unexpected travel experiences (Credit: Travel/Alamy)
A deeply entrenched social norm in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia is the concept of baksheesh, meaning a tip or charitable alms. It can be solicited outright by a taxi driver or tour guide, or whispered suggestively from a street corner bazaar, but ultimately means the same thing: a present or small tip is called for, regardless of the service given.
Wrongly interpreted it can be translated as begging. But giving alms to the poor is one of the five tenets of Islam and understanding that will deepen a traveller's grasp of this part of the world, with the benefactor supposedly made holier by the action.
In Egypt, such handouts are commonplace for restaurant workers, taxi drivers, tour guides and hotel staff, but also door openers, bathroom attendants, security personnel and shopkeepers. A deeper look at baksheesh also reveals it is part of a loosely defined pay-it-forward system, in which tour guides and hotel concierges from Cairo to Aswan can give preferential treatment, ensure top-notch service and grant favours if tipped in advance. Dollars are welcome, as are Egyptian Pounds, and US$1-2 (or E£30-40) is enough to let loose a welcome grin.
In these circumstances, it is not uncommon for a key to a locked temple door in the Valley of the Kings to miraculously appear, or for an out-of-bounds museum toilet to suddenly be open to visitors again. And travellers won't find that insight in many tourist brochures.
Gratuities are now acceptable in China, especially in bigger cities and grand hotels (Credit: dowell/Getty Images)
Even in the most modern of China's megalopolises, like Beijing and Shanghai, there is a sense of superstition and tradition. Gratuities are not expected – far from it – and, while it seems hard to credit in a country obsessed with technological breakthrough and the world of tomorrow, here tipping was once prohibited.
Indeed, one of the tenets of China is all people are equal and none is a servant to another; and implying superiority over someone else has long been a taboo. And while China is increasingly a country of grand hotels and circus-style restaurants, tipping – particularly in lesser-visited cities and towns – still exists somewhere between being ill-mannered and a bribe.
But the growth of Chinese tourism, as well as the assimilation of many Western customs, is leading to incremental change, according to Maggie Tian, general manager of China for Australian-based tour operator Intrepid Travel.
The Chinese still aren't in the habit of tipping, but gratuities are now acceptable
"While tipping in China historically was considered rude, times are changing," she explained. "The Chinese still aren't in the habit of tipping, but gratuities are now acceptable, especially in bigger cities where there are many foreign residents and visitors. If you're visiting, tipping porters, tour guides and bartenders a small amount for exceptional service or special support is welcome. Despite the history, locals will be appreciative."
Adding a gratuity is expected across the US, with the rate currently sitting at around 20-25% of a bill (Credit: vinnstock/Getty Images)
Few countries take tipping culture as seriously as the US. It is ingrained in the national psyche as much as the Super Bowl, and, at times, it can be hard for a foreign traveller to measure or explain this spirit.
It's now custom to add 20-25% to a bill, and tipflation presents challenges for both locals and visitors alike. Indeed, these days, the amount given and expected has increased exponentially and the rise of digital tipping options has added to the complexity.
While every country has different rules around gratuities, and the process can sometimes seem like a minefield, it's important to always be respectful to other cultures when travelling.
Be sure to research local tipping customs before you travel to a destination to avoid causing offence.
If service staff are underpaid and depend on a daily cycle of gratuities, it is also true that more retailers, from gas stations to Starbucks, are now adding an optional service charge to once straightforward counter sales. The crux is pretty much anything – with service or not – can cost extra. There are many ways to do it wrong (not tipping per drink while sat at a bar will see a patron fail to get served, for instance), and yet just one way to do it right.
"The US has a tipping culture like nowhere else," said Peter Anderson, managing director at travel concierge service Knightsbridge Circle. "In New York recently, I bought a bottle of water from a shop and when paying was asked for a tip. But I picked up the water myself, took it to the counter and paid, and yet I was expected to leave 20%. In too many places, it is just a way of paying staff a lower wage and passing more cost onto the customer.
While the US is seeing a no-tipping movement and a shift towards more equitable compensation methods for staff, progress has been slow. For now, realise that while tipping is legally voluntary in the US, hourly wages for wait staff and other frontline tourism workers is often sub-minimal. And it always pays to be nice, especially when travelling as an ambassador for your own homeland.
While tipping is not a tradition in Denmark, most people will round up the bill in a restaurant (Credit: Alexander Spatari/Getty Images)
Commonly labelled one of the world's happiest countries for its egalitarian society, community generosity and benevolence to others, it might come as a surprise to learn the Danish are by and large a nation of non-tippers.
Chiefly, the reasons are twofold: citizens benefit from higher GDP per capita and a better welfare system than in most other countries around the globe, meaning service staff, taxi drivers and frontline workers aren't dependent on tips in the same way; and service is normally included on the bill at restaurants and hotels.
But while tipping isn't tradition, it's a norm in Denmark – and across wider Scandinavia – to round up a bill in a restaurant as a token gesture. And crucially, like almost everywhere in Europe these days, above-and-beyond service is commonly rewarded with either a monetary tip or the loyalty of repeat visits, which are equally worth their weight in gold.
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