Mid-Pacific Man

A Kiwi journalist reflects on his migratory path to the US of A
by James Robinson

Editor’s Note: James Robinson is a late 20-ish New Zealand journalist now married to an American and living in the San Francisco Bay Area. While at Columbia Journalism School in Boston, James started writing a blog for the Stuff website back in New Zealand, about his gradual coming to grips with American culture and mores. These blog entries were not written as a tourist, but as an émigré – they were about a young Kiwi making a commitment not just to a marriage, but to an entire alien culture. Our apparent familiarity with the US (Hey, they speak English, we’ve seen the movies, how hard can it be?) only serves to disguise the potential for gaffes, mutual misunderstandings – and revelations – that kept coming down the pike at him, on a daily basis.

Late last year, James raised $15,000 (via a Kickstarter campaign) to publish a collection of his blog entries into one fascinating volume, with added prefaces and updates on this gig he’s living, as a participant observer. Books about America are usually of two kinds: those that use the US as a mirror and those that take to it with a hammer. With James, the reflections are through a two way glass. He’s written a book about how New Zealanders see the world, as much as how Americans live their lives. To the point of merger during the America’s Cup campaign, where he could interview a Kiwi boatie in San Francisco without that person realising he was not an American – a situation that left James with mixed feelings of the “What Kind of Creature Have I Become? “ variety.

Below is an extract from his book, which is called ‘Voyages in America.’ The extract deals with a perennial cultural divide – tipping – and while it is typical of James’ self-critical, incremental approach, ideally it should be read in context. Meaning: the book’s effect is cumulative. You need to read the whole thing to get the full impact of his views about his former home, and of how he’s getting schooled about his new one. (Here’s a pull quote, gratis : James Robinson is the Alexis de Tocqueville of the digital age !) BTW. James is doing the whole distribution thing himself. You should be able to get the book from stores such as Unity Books, Scorpio in Christchurch, and Page and Blackmore in Nelson. You can purchase it online here and from these retailers.

It is a Friday night early in 2011 and I am in Boston’s Chinatown with LP eating Vietnamese food. We have just been to see Blue Valentine, a film that dissects in harrowing detail the dissolution of a marriage – not at all the take-my-mind-off-school-for-the-night distraction I had been looking for. The other option was the Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston bomb Just Go With It, so we made the right choice.

As LP and I were perched over half-eaten bowls of pho, the delicious Vietnamese soup, the fire alarm went off in our restaurant. The owner came out of the kitchen and informed us that this was merely a technical error and we were in no danger of being burned to death. Already depressed by the film, we closed out our meal to the repetitive soundtrack of a bleating, so-loud-you-can’t-focus-on-anything-else fire alarm. LP and I split bills religiously. We’re modern like that. But I had promised her dinner this evening. Given the droning, unpleasant ambience on top of our cinema-induced malaise, how much do I tip?

The American tipping standard is somewhere between 15 and 20 percent. However, I had spent the last 20 minutes of my meal listening to the wail of an alarm, plastering on a fake smile and feeling bleak about the state of humanity. My capacity to be generous was non-existent. At that moment I felt vindictive. I tipped $2 on a $24 bill. LP was indignant. She is a former waitress and a strong proponent of their cause. American servers bring in tips each day, but otherwise make minimum wage. In many states, including Massachusetts, where we were, there is a special servers’ minimum that can be as low as $2 or $3 an hour.

“You’re punishing the waiter for something that wasn’t his fault,” LP said.
I responded with great poise and eloquence. “But I was only trying to communicate to them my impaired enjoyment of the meal.”
“I don’t care,” she responded. “The waitstaff depend on that money to make a living and you’re punishing them.”
“So I can’t convey my lack of enjoyment of a meal with the tip?”
“No.”
We were debating this to the continued headache-inducing vibrations of the fire alarm. I was not moved. “So why don’t they just add a 15 percent service charge onto all our meals?”
“Because it’s called a tip,” LP fired back, similarly unimpressed by my line of reasoning.

I sensed that this was a losing battle for me. We walked out of the restaurant and into the frosty winter night. I was seething that the act of tipping was in no way representative of how much I’d enjoyed my meal. If it’s called a gratuity, shouldn’t it reflect my level of gratitude? LP was annoyed back at me for being a cheapskate.
It was confusing. If anything less than 15 percent was an insult, as LP was telling me, tipping was starting to come off like a compulsory transaction tacked on to the end of each meal, a non-negotiable but theoretically optional fee.

Tipping re-orients the entire experience of dining out in America. As I adjusted to my life, it seemed that I was forever learning the minutiae of these new rules – and keeping them close at hand, to ensure I respected the different cultural dynamics of eating out. Because tipping really is non-negotiable. In 2004, as I was getting off an airport bus from LAX, an American hotel porter took my bags. I told him I was flying back to New Zealand the next morning and had no cash with which to reward his effort. He threw my bags off the bus. To come to America and not tip is a large cultural faux pas. It goes past faux pas really to being a violation of the social code.

Just to make it really confusing, when deciding about what to tip, you need to understand the context of the bill and the situation you are in. If it’s a smaller amount, you need to tip a higher percentage to reflect the time taken to serve you. Say if you spent $12, but commandeered a table for a good amount of time, drank a number of free refills and ordered several cheap things, $3 or $4 would be a recommended amount. But if you go to a restaurant and order and pay at the counter, you’re not required to tip at all because you haven’t had table service. If you’re at a bar you should tip one dollar for each drink you’re buying. But for instance, if you order five bottles of beer and the bartender only has to rip the top off each one, you can get away with tipping less than that.

The whole system brings in new frustration points to adapt to. Be ready for waiters and bartenders to hand you large amounts of change in wads of $5 and $1 notes. This is enormously frustrating for anyone but strip club regulars. Servers don’t want you having to weigh up between a $5 and a $10 tip. It will leave you drunk with a wallet of $1 bills, feeling like you have much more money than you really do.

The maths involved can be a total mood killer. Picture a pleasant evening with friends. The bill comes and the mood turns as six of you are forced to individually calculate the cost of your order, multiply the listed price by 1.06 for state sales tax (not included in the menu price) and then by 1.15 for tip and then hopefully find the exact change to throw in so you’re not splitting it amongst different debit cards. There’s no heading up to the counter and telling the server what specific menu items you want to pay for personally. The last person to get the bill at the table always gets stuck having to overpay, as someone inevitably under-tips or goofs on their mealtime arithmetic.

Anyway. You deal with it.

I feel uncomfortable when I hear New Zealanders talk about refusing to tip in the United States out of principle, not aware that they’re economically short-changing the people they’re relying on to give them a good holiday, not to mention souring our national reputation. The New Zealander that goes to the US and complains about tipping is every bit as bad as the stereotypes of loud, whining American tourists that we grumble over.

In time, I came to enjoy the power tipping affords me. Despite the protestations of people from non-tipping cultures, the listed price of American food is cheaper, so tipping does not make a meal more expensive. Tipping gives me an avenue through which I can make a judgement on my dining experience. And because this judgement is financial, you know it will be heard.

In Boston, our favourite Sunday brunch spot was the Island Creek Oyster Bar on Commonwealth Avenue. Sometimes waiters would bring us out pastry samples while we waited for our food. We loved it. Even if the service erred on occasion, we tipped 20 percent down the line, no matter what. Free pastries will buy you that sort of loyalty with me. On the other hand, if I go out for a meal and my food is just okay and the waiter is not particularly attentive, I’ll go with the baseline 15 percent tip. I’m not afraid to dip below 15 percent in extreme circumstances either, even if LP and I disagree strongly on that. Similarly, if someone changes my life through their service, I can nudge above 20 percent.

Every time you eat out in America, there is a financial incentive in place for your waiter. Admittedly, this can make them cloyingly, artificially friendly. But now that I’ve adapted to it, New Zealand’s pool of baristas, bartenders and waiters hit me as brusque and rude. At least with the American way, as confusing and cloaked in doublespeak as it might be, I now have a satisfying way of expressing my joy or taking out my frustration at the end of each meal. It starts off backward but becomes beautiful.

Editor’s Footnote: While I’m on the same side of the fence as James when it comes to tipping, my reasoning is different. I‘ve worked in the service industry in the United States, as a bellhop at a swanky hotel in Denver. This meant daily encounters with people who knew how to manage the tipping encounter, as well as with a few – alas, mainly from Australia and New Zealand – who either didn’t tip, or who fumbled their way through it in a way that embarrassed them, and me.

Right, so here’s my rationale for tipping. Often you hear the (self-serving) argument that tipping is degrading. Bullshit. My experience was the exact opposite. Believe me, the tip is what transforms an otherwise degrading service into a professional relationship. By making it an economic transaction that you – as the recipient – have to pay for directly, the interaction is made more balanced. The payment transaction is the explicit recognition by both parties that I’m doing this for money – not because I like you, or because I like serving you, or because you were born to a higher station. In that sense, tipping is the great equalizer. And the more that you’re tipped, the more pride you retain, and the more tolerable it is to do service work. Which helps you feel more inclined to do it better. – Gordon Campbell