One of the best tips I’ve been given here is to tip. The other tip is that just like the portion sizes in the USA, a tip can never, ever, be big enough.
Many an embarrassing situation has been avoided by the knowledge that it’s customary to leave a tip of approximately half the GDP of Switzerland in any restaurant. My husband and I know several people who, unaware of this, have been admonished by flustered waiters or waitresses explaining that tips constitute most of their pay. In one case, a couple was chased down the street by a disgruntled member of staff and made to cough up more to make the tip up to 20% of their check. They thought they had worked out 20% correctly, but in fact had been under by 50 cents.
It’s not just restaurants, cabs and hairdressers we’re talking about here. Sometimes it feels like every time someone lifts a finger for you they’re expecting some kind of payment. Even if they’re just lifting a finger on the draught beer tap and using several other fingers to place it on the counter. Drink moved 20 centimetres from barman to customer? That’ll be an extra dollar, thank you very much. Per drink. It’s all very baffling to the uninitiated. You can see how an innocent European, used to paying the price of the drink and nothing more, could get caught out by this. Especially as the drunker you get, the more likely it is that you’ll leave a 20 dollar bill instead of one dollar, because they are identical. (At least they are for the first two weeks you’re here).
This is all very well and I’m more than happy to pay for good service. And the service is usually good here, because of that reliance on tips. It certainly works; the more they smile, or the more free Limoncello they give you at the end of your meal, the more you feel inclined to give. No, it’s not giving tips that is the problem: it’s the fear of not giving a tip when one is expected, or giving one when one isn’t, or not giving enough…the possibilities for awkward tip encounters are endless.
For the newcomer in New York, it’s essential to gauge whether a tip is appropriate by learning how to read body language. Do the men who have just hauled a sofa up your stairs hang around expectantly, waiting for something more than a mere ‘thank you’? Does the railroad worker who has got you ahead of the queue for the train because you have small children hover for a reward? Does the kid on the lemonade stand hold out his hand again when you’ve paid the dollar he’s demanded for his homemade brew? It’s a minefield.
There are some people, however, who definitely deserve extra. Aside from the lovely restaurant and bar staff here, who I think deserve all the tips they get, I always tip the FreshDirect guys who deliver my groceries. After all, they climb two flights of stairs to get to my kitchen, come numbing cold or scalding sun. Once they’re there, they have to negotiate the toys and forgotten diaper sacks strewn around the hallway, make small talk with a three year old and wait for me to locate my purse so that they even stand a chance of seeing any cash. Then when they leave, they are more than likely to be hit by wayward missiles as my two boys continue their usual afternoon games. They lug their delivery cart downstairs, only to be honked at by passing cars who are trying to get past their truck. Sometimes, you just know you need to tip.