When it comes to tipping, Aussies are tightwads

Go to the US or anywhere in western Europe, walk into a bar or restaurant and ask the first staff member you see. They'll tell you: Australians don't tip.

About the best tip you'll get from an Aussie is the old: "Be good to your mother."

We just don't do it; it's not part of our culture.

Some Aussies do try but we invariably get it wrong: the wrong amount, done the wrong way, given to the wrong person.

And that's the main problem. It's not that Australians don't want to tip (although that's part of it), it's that we don't really understand how the whole thing is done when we try.

I still find tipping thoroughly confusing. You're supposed to tip 10 per cent, right?

That's a good rule of thumb. OK, now go to a restaurant in New York and tip 10 per cent. Then watch what happens. I've seen the owner of a restaurant approach a table of four Australians to discuss the amount handed over.

"Was there a problem tonight, guys?" he asked. They all shook their heads.

"So everything was fine with your service?" They all nodded.


"Then I'm afraid this isn't an appropriate tip, guys, you're going have to do better than that."

So they all sheepishly reached into their wallets and dished out a few more greenbacks.

In New York, you tip 20 per cent. I know what you're thinking, too: 20 per-freakin'-cent? That's far too much!

And you're right, it is far too much. Why do New York service staff get tipped so much more than everyone else? I have no idea.

All I know is that if you ignore this rule, you're going to make yourself seriously unpopular.

At least restaurant tipping is straightforward: you calculate a percentage of the total of your bill and leave that on the table. Done.

What's harder for the rookie tipper is paying a moving target such as a barman or a hotel porter. It's not just the pain of parting with cash that you don't think you should have to. Now you have to figure out how much bar staff or porters would normally expect for the service provided and how the hell you're going to slip it to them.

Experienced tippers become masters of the smooth monetary exchange. They're Bond-like in their casual slipping of a note between palms after a service has been performed.

I have no idea how this is done. Say you're at a bar and you order a beer. It costs $4, so you pay with a $20. You're hardly going so say, "Keep the change", are you? That's a $16 tip!

Unless you're in New York, you technically should tip the guy 40¢ but you're not going to be such a tightwad as to count out the coins on the bar, surely?

So you figure, fine, I'll just give him the $1 note from the change I'll get back. But how do you give it to him? With an awkward, "Hey, this is for you" as you flip it across the bar?

Or do you leave it on the bar and hope he picks it up later and knows it was from you?

I usually go with the latter option, which I think does the trick because no North American barman has ever given me the evil eye before and I usually get served when I go to the bar for a second round.

For hotel porters carrying your bags, how much is that service worth? One dollar? Ten dollars?

I haven't a clue.

And how do you hand over the money? Do you fold it into your palm and give him a secret handshake? Or just dangle it in front of you as he's leaving the room?

To be honest, I usually solve this one by avoiding giving a tip. So a guy brought my bag upstairs - big deal. I would have happily done it myself if someone had given me the chance. (Starting to realise where we got this reputation of ours? Thought so.)

At least in the US, when you're forced to pay for something, it's usually done well. That's not always the case elsewhere.

Most travellers have experienced the old "tipping for toilets" routine in Europe. This involves placing some spare change in front of a nice old lady as you wander into the WC.

You're thinking to yourself, "Well, I might have had to pay for it but at least that means it'll be nice and clean".

And on that point, you'd be very, very wrong.

Then there's the snooty restaurant service you're expected to shell out for, plus a little extra for the cab driver who took you on the "tourist route" and then some "baksheesh" for the guy who told you where the toilets were.

It would be enough to drive a man to drink - if you didn't have to tip the barman.

Read Ben Groundwater's column each week in the Sun-Herald.