Is it time for us to take tipping seriously?

To tip or not to tip are social dilemmas we struggle with every day. You get that odd feeling when you don't leave a tip, and when you decide to tip, you waver uncertainly over how much.

We are not alone in this, for there is no agreement on this around the world either. Tipping is a norm in some countries but not in others.

A check online shows that the tipping culture is well established in Europe and North America, but not in Asia.

According to Conde Nast Traveler, China, like many Asian countries, comes from a no-tipping culture. The same is true of Korea and Japan. In Japan, waiters may even decline a tip when proffered.

It warns in a March guide that, "tipping rules vary by country, by region, and by scenario. A modest rounding up of the check may be fine in some places and insufficient in others."

In Singapore, a country whose government has proclaimed in the past that "tipping is not a way of life", tipping seems poised to replace the service charge.

The Straits Times reports earlier this year that a wave of new eateries has done away with the service charge and leaves diners to tip at their own discretion.

It says at Australian barbecue restaurant Burnt Ends, its manager Thomas Koh hopes the waiver of the service charge will change "the big fat lie in the industry".

"Being in the industry for so long, we know that service charge seldom goes to service staff," he is reported as saying. "Hopefully, we will also help start a positive movement in the local scene."

In the United States, tipping is highly expected and leaving a table without first tipping is frowned upon. Here, tipping has a deeper social and economic impact than just expressing gratitude for services rendered.

Tips are expected in many work sectors in the US, according to BBC America, especially in the "tipped employees" category such as waiters and bartenders where the minimum wage is below US$6 (S$8) per hour.

An article on Wall Street Journal last August notes that nearly 15 per cent of the nation's 2.4 million waiters and waitresses live in poverty, compared with about 7 per cent of all workers. Tipping is almost mandatory in all restaurants with table service to help make up for the low pay.

According to BBC America, "tipping 15 per cent to 25 per cent of the total bill is normal. In high-end establishments, they hope you'll leave (tips) nearer to 25 per cent - and possibly tip the maitre d' five or 10 bucks (on top of the tip you leave on the bill)."

If you leave less than 15 per cent, the staff would assume that you aren't happy with their service and if you leave 10 per cent or less (sometimes they leave two pennies) on the bill, it's a code to show that you are very unhappy with them.

Popular travel and living website GoNomad.com lists that in the United Kingdom, a service charge of 12.5 per cent is included in the bill at some restaurants. "If it is not present, then a 10-15 per cent tip is generally acceptable in most eateries. However, tipping is not necessary at the bar in a pub."

In restaurants in Germany, the common tip is 10 per cent of the total bill. The waiting staff, however, receives a monthly salary that is considerably higher than the US minimum wage. If the restaurant bill is very high (including, for example, very expensive wines), the tip is usually no more than 5 to 6 per cent.

The website also states that in Italy, tipping is kept to a minimum. "No tips are expected, but, again, if you feel as though the person did a great job, feel free to round up to the next highest amount. Also remember too that you are being charged a coperto (cover charge) or possibly for pane (bread) as well."

The local scene

In Malaysia, it is considered polite and an act of generosity to tip. While it is not expected - and you are not begrudged when you don't - it is much appreciated when you do and is even hoped for.

"It really is up to the patrons," says Malaysian Food and Beverage Executives Association president Muhammad Hisham Tan Abdullah. "There are instances when an individual tips very generously but that is not often. Sometimes, good service goes unrewarded."

Random and erratic is the picture service staff paint of the gratuity handout.

"Sometimes, a table of very rich people offers no tips while a young couple leaves RM50 (S$18.50)," says the manager of a relatively busy, high end, casual dining restaurant in the Kuala Lumpur city centre that attracts a fair number of expatriate diners.

"It's the well-travelled customers - who are used to tipping in other countries - who tip the best," says Till Gangne, who finds it hard to put a number on the "average tip" but says it's between RM10 and RM50, regardless of the amount spent.

The tips go to a common collection and are shared at week's end between the service and kitchen staff, with each taking about RM90.

"We acknowledge that tips are also given in appreciation of the food, so it is only fair that we share it with the kitchen crew," Gangne says.

While the Frenchman says he would like to see an established tipping culture in Malaysia as the salary scale of waitstaff is not so high, "it has to be deserved."

For a burger joint in Oasis Square, Petaling Jaya that doesn't see many expatriate guests, the "bonus payout" is not as good.

"We have a kitty jar where we store our tips," says M. Addy, a waiter.

The tips are coming mostly from the loose change and don't amount to much - they get about RM120 to 200 a week, which is shared among about 10 staff members (including the kitchen crew) at the end of the month.

"It is not just at this restaurant, but at several other restaurants that I've worked at as well where the patrons usually think that whatever small amount they leave on the tray is sufficient. The smallest amount I have ever received is 20 sen, and that is after serving a table of four adults for over an hour."

However, even small change matters to Addy and his colleagues, who understand that tipping is just not a big deal in Malaysia.

Where, when, why and how much

Tips are generally expected at restaurants with table service. That means you don't need to tip at fast food outlets and coffee shops.

The origin of tipping is traced to Tudor times in Britain, where it is given "To Insure Promptness" (T.I.P). The original intention of tipping is to help improve service.

Surely there is a light bulb moment here: Tipping is the solution for Malaysia, a country considered by industry experts and globe trotters as not having a professional service culture. Tipping can help improve the service level in the country.

This can only work if a tipping standard is set and made known to all. For instance, 10 per cent to 15 per cent for good service, 20 per cent or more for exceptional service, 5 per cent to 10 per cent for average service - or maybe not - and nothing for poor service. That will send the message clearly to service staff and management on what needs to be done.

Or for a gentler start, we can practise this: regardless of how much the bill is, leave an RM5 tip if you don't feel you can afford it, RM10 if you can, RM20 is even better and RM50 and above when you encounter exceptional service.

And quite importantly, don't tip when the service is exceptionally poor.

In Europe, in restaurants with high traffic, the service staff can sometimes make several times more than their wages thanks to tips.

"As a restaurant manager in Paris in the late 90s, I was making twice the salary of an engineer due to the tips," says a French F&B consultant based in KL. "This allows waiters to make a good living and establish waiting as a respectable and desirable profession, and takes the job to a professional level."

What is professional table service?

Let's start by saying that professional table service goes way deeper than "service with a smile".

It implies knowledge of a wide range of skills like food hygiene, table setting, service sequence, order taking, food and wine recommendations and serving wines at the right temperature, down to details like the correct way to hold a tray or wine glass, and which side of the table to serve from.

Waiting is a profession with its own professional code of ethics, which includes the understanding that service is not servitude.

"For instance, there is no need to bend for the rich; you need to cater to individuals and attend to everyone," says Gangne.

"Some diners want attention while some like to be left alone. The job of a waiter is to investigate and adjust the service level accordingly. Service is being sharp and understanding what people want.

"The trouble is that in Malaysia, the schools tend to turn out robots. I encourage my team to go to the table with their own personality and play with their own charms - but don't be 'heavy' or overdo it.

"Good service is not intrusive; it's discreet, polite, prompt, and most of all, sincere. The little details make the difference: greeting the guests and saying goodbye, seeing one to the car, letting an indecisive diner try the wines before ordering, etc.

"This is not even part of the basic training; it's just common sense. I do like what I do when I have friends over for dinner at home: take care of them," says Gangne.

"People often come to the restaurant expecting the rather aloof service of a fine dining restaurant; I break the code to give them a very warm experience that is not snobbish. Even if I am busy, I take two minutes to talk to each table and ask if everything is all right."

Psychology of tipping

Psychologically, tipping relieves the giver more than the receiver. The act of largesse makes people feel good and completes the circle of service. Tipping is a reciprocate action of putting a smile in the hearts of those who served you with a smile.

According to Michael Lynn, professor at the Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration in New York City, economists believe tipping comes into play where you, the consumer, are going to be a better judge of how they did in their job.

"We tend to tip service providers more based on what they make, and what we make. So the greater the income disparity between the server and the customer, the more likely we are to tip.

"We also tend to tip better when there's some sort of social contact. You're much more likely to tip your waiter with whom you've had a conversation with, than someone you only have a few seconds of contact with," says Lynn.

Good reasons to tip

If you feel that the minimum wage of the service staff is low, tipping is the ethically responsible thing to do. It also helps to encourage good service in the industry, and Addy believes that it works well for wait staff to measure the services.

"Right now we don't really know how well we do our jobs - unless the customers tell us, and that is not often. So, just by looking at the tips, we could gauge our level of performance and have an incentive to improve our services," he said.

Tipping is a way to say "thank you" and show appreciation. To ensure that your tips get to the service staff promptly, leave tips in cash rather than charging it to the credit card - charged to the card, it will take a longer time for the tip to get from one pocket to the other.

With tips contributing to better pay, it will attract more Malaysians to work in the service industry and reduce our dependence on foreign labour - and that's the cherry on the cake.