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Robert Waite


Are Canadians Actually Bad Tippers?

Posted: 07/03/2013 12:25 pm

Ever been to a restaurant where the cuisine was fabulous, but the service was almost comically inept? Of course you have! My spouse and I had just such an experience recently while dining with an American couple, old dear friends, at the Weekapaug Inn on Rhode Island's shore.

A major attraction at the Weekapaug is renowned chef Jennifer Backman, known for her creative use of local seafood, fowl and fresh produce (and for assembling an entirely female kitchen staff).

We dined Canada Day evening. The food was Michelin-perfect. The service, on the other hand, was Marx Brothers muddled.

When the bill came, I offered to pay; our friends insisted we split it. So we split it. And this is where a cultural chasm appeared.

I mentioned that I would be adding an 18 per cent tip, knocking down my customary 20 per cent a little due to the poor service.

Well, you would have thought I had announced my support for Syria's Bashar al-Assad...or Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. I was informed that it is now customary at better restaurants in the U.S. to tip a minimum of 20 per cent; 25 per cent for normal service; and 30 per cent for exceptional wait-staff effort.

"You may be a little out of touch," was one comment. Being out of touch has been a life-long affliction, I allowed. But I was sticking to my 18 per cent.

My experience back home in Canada is that most people keep to a 15 per cent, 20 per cent, 25 per cent tip regime, on a before-tax basis. Earning 25 per cent takes something really extraordinary -- like having your waiter taste your lobster bisque for you... and falling down dead because it was poisoned.

Even our credit card and debit card automatic chip devices (which have not yet been introduced in the States) prompt you to select 15 per cent or 20 per cent (or a dollar amount).

My spouse, who is Japanese-Canadian, points out that tipping is almost unheard of in Japan -- yet the quality of service in that country is unrivalled. On the other hand, when I lived in Poland in the bad old days of communism in the 1970s, tipping was mandatory -- and the service was uniformly abysmal.

Perhaps because I worked in a restaurant myself when young, my own tipping philosophy actually skews to benefit wait staff at less expensive restaurants, diners and the like. I always imagine the waitress as a single mom, with two or three kids at home, and leave four or five bucks on a $15 tab. I feel a lot better about that then adding 20 per cent to a $200 bill (although to be fair, the waitress at the expensive restaurant often has to share with other staff).

The view that we in Canada are poor tippers is not new. When I was working on Florida, Arizona and Hawaiian events for IBM Canada in the 1980s and 1990s I used to frequently bump into this rather lame joke: "What's the difference between a canoe and a Canadian?" Answer: "The canoe tips!"

So are we in Canada cheap? Do U.S. restaurants cringe when we give them a Canadian area code when making a reservation? Or has tipping finally gone too far, reaching its own tipping point? Perhaps we should get rid of tipping altogether and pay restaurant staff a decent wage? Or would they miss all that non-taxable cash? It seems we have just touched the tip of the iceberg on this topic, so please weigh in.

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