“Is that a tip?”
The speaker is the desk manager at our hotel in Rotorua, a seismically active area of New Zealand. Well, an area where the country’s ubiquitous seismic activity shows in the form of steam vents, geysers, acidic blue pools, and bubbling mud pots, not to mention an occasional eruption that changes the landscape’s topography.
But I digress. Unusual, I know.
I’m there to settle our account before we check out. I look at the bill for two glasses of wine and note the amount on the, umm, tip line that has, apparently baffled this guy. Is it a trick question?
“Yes,” I reply.
There is a short pause. He seems at a loss for what to say next, so I jump in. Unusual, I know.
“People don’t tip much here, do they?”
“No,” he says, in some relief, glad to have this shameful secret out in the open. There’s another pause, but this time I wait to see what’s coming. Unusual, I know.
“How do they calculate it?” he asks, finally. “As a percentage of the bill?”
Well, OK then. Enough said.
Not that it’s the first time tipping has come up. Two nights earlier, a small group out for dinner had huddled over the tip, as people do in groups, trying to accommodate everyone’s sensitivities. Well, some of us were trying to accommodate everyone’s sensitivities and presumed budgets. Others might have been trying to have things their own way. I know! Unusual, eh?
Our program leader — our extremely well-travelled and worldly program leader — happened to be with us and watched with some . . . umm . . . something.
Impatience? Never. Amusement? Not so blatant. Pity? Not quite.
Finally, she spoke. Mildly. “They don’t expect a tip.”
We looked at her in some surprise.
Someone pointed out that there was a tip line on the credit card bill. She didn’t argue the fact.
Someone else said that they’d appreciate a tip, surely? It wasn’t really a question. She acknowledged the truth of that.
Someone else said that we didn’t want to be ugly (North) Americans. She said she understood.
We returned to selecting a percentage. And she sat back quietly and watched us with some . . . umm . . . something, doing what we knew was right and what she knew was unnecessary.
So now I look thoughtfully at the hotel desk manager.
“Yes,” I say, “as a percentage.”
Two weeks later, a guide in Australia explains why they don’t have a tipping culture in that country. Something about a minimum wage of $16.80 an hour and a 25% premium for short shifts that don’t amount to a full day of work. Something, maybe, about a socio-political commitment to a living wage?
But everything I really needed to know about tipping Down Under — and the difference between discretionary and truly optional — I had already learned from a slightly baffled guy in Rotorua.
“How do they calculate it?”