Jeff Corbett on why tipping for service in China is demeaning


The service, my daughter told me, was fantastic. I’d asked about the Newcastle restaurant she’d been to a couple of nights earlier, and she enthused about the waiters lined up in silence along a wall ready to pounce on an opportunity to top up your wine, pick up a wayward napkin, remove a plate.

How was the food? Just OK, she said, but the service was worth every cent!

Such service, and even her description, makes my skin crawl.

The posturing, the fawning, the phony interest in my day, the sir and madam, is more than I can comfortably bear, and it is one of the reasons I avoid restaurants that offer such service. The other, by the way, is the invariably overblown food, with its useless dots and drizzles.

Why would anyone who sees fellow humans in an equal light want a restaurant waiter to lay a napkin on their lap?

Most of us, I hope, assume that other people deserve a certain dignity until they prove otherwise, yet we find some weird pleasure in having that other person take a napkin from the table directly in front of us, flap it out and lay it across our lap, as if we’re too important to do it ourselves. Then we say “thank you”, which adds to the surreality.

I thank the waiter a moment or two earlier. When I see the laying of the napkins in progress I wait until the napkin layer is approaching me and I quickly put the napkin on my own lap, thanking them as I do so. My “thank you” is more “piss off”.

The service that pleases fine diners so much is more servility than service. What service is there in the laying of the napkin or topping up a glass of wine?

Table waiting is usually a part-time job in , one for young people who are at uni or working a second job to save, but in some countries of Europe table waiting is often a lifelong and respectable job. And in my experience these European career waiters have an air of aloofness, a like-it-or-lump-it attitude, that kills any sense of servility.

This detachment is often referred to as rudeness in customer online reviews of Italian restaurants that have Italian waiters here, and while sometimes the rattling depositing of the plate on the table and the ignoring of customers is rude it is for me preferable to the fawning alternative.

When diners in tip for what they call good service they are really tipping for too much service, and as you’ve gathered that’s the very last thing I want to reward. But I don’t tip. Full stop.

In the price of the meal includes its delivery to the table, and it includes even the demeaning napkin laying if that happens.

In fact, the napkin laying can be very expensive. Sometimes, I think, the tip is a payment for not being ignored or for not being rude, when surely we don’t need to pay for these civilities.

Yes, I know that in the US waiters rely on tips for payment, that we pay separately for the meal and for the serving of the meal, and when I was there I paid the 10 per cent or 15 per cent happily enough.

But eventually I rebelled against the expectation that I’d give a dollar note to every hotel employee who, uninvited, opened a door for me or carried a bag 10 metres or who arrived in the hotel room to show me how to turn on the bathroom taps, and the resulting surliness made me more resolute.

Here I don’t put my change in the beggar’s bowl of coloured water with the “your generosity is appreciated” sign next to many shop tills, I don’t tell taxi drivers to keep the change, and I don’t do that for the same reason I don’t offer money to the Bunnings staff member standing near the entrance directing us to the right aisle or to the liquor store worker suggesting a bottle of wine.

It demeans or insults them and if it doesn’t it should.

Sometimes not to leave a tip requires a certain tenacity, as in the taxi driver who very reluctantly scratches about for the coins for the change and the Chinese restaurants that offer the coins in a slippery little tray, and while cards make it easier these days we need to be careful.

In a Sydney Chinese restaurant last year my wife was inserting the card into a portable card machine held by a roving cashier at the table when, uncharacteristically, I inspected the receipt and noticed an entry for $130.

The cashier was full of apologies, well practised I suspected, and explained that the $130 was meant to be just $13 for a tip. A tip of 20 per cent, by the way.

I refused to pay either and there was no smiling farewell as we left.

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