Wednesday, August 31, 2011

On Tipping and Reverse Culture Shock

The "reverse culture shock" of returning to America hasn't been so bad. A few things bug me, like the amount of trash that is produced for my family of three in America compared to the trash produced by me and the boyfriend in Korea. And we do recycle everything we can here, and yet, the huge trash can is full every few days where as the tiny trash bag in my house in Seoul would take a week to fill if there was nothing out of the ordinary going on.

The public transportation bugs me too. Inevitably, no matter what time or where I get on, somewhere on the way to my destination, the train will stop for a good 5 minutes for some reason or other. I like when they use the excuse of "there's traffic on the tracks" since the trains only come once every 5-10 minutes. Often, though, a train is dead on the tracks somewhere and we have to wait for them to clear the train corpse up so our train can get through.

But the thing that's really been getting me is the whole tipping thing. In Korea, you can't tip. For example, if you were to leave 1,000 won on the table, you'd be chased out of the restaurant with a "Oh, oh! Wait miss! You left this behind!!" Koreans are insulted that you would even think they needed a tip for doing their job. Other Asian countries are similar, though most places in China or Southeast Asia will certainly not refuse your tip if you're dumb culturally unaware enough to leave one.

And then we went to Spain, which was a whole other tipping phenomenon. Upon arrival, we knew that you didn't need to tip much, we assumed 10% or so. At the first restaurant we went to, we probably spent 7 or 8 Euro and we left a 1 Euro tip. Upon meeting our couchsurfer that evening, she was taken aback by our tipping. "Oh my god, I would never leave a Euro!... I mean, unless it's some super fancy restaurant! Who leaves a Euro as a tip?! Here, this will do for our 20 Euro meal!" As she slapped down a 20 cent coin. My American friend was clearly taken aback by this, and I think we wound up leaving 50 cents because we felt bad. And as we left, she pointed out "Well, you don't have to tip anyway... look at that table, they didn't tip! You only should tip if you like the service." And this kind of made sense to me. Just leave the change from the meal, and never more than a euro. I could deal with this kind of tipping.

But now, back in America, I've been having trouble with the tipping culture. My first meal out in the States was to a restaurant called Fire and Ice. Have you heard of it? It's popular in the Boston area, but I don't know if it's well known around the country or not. Anyway, it's a very do-it-yourself kind of restaurant. The waitress brings you your drink, rice and tortillas, and you do the rest. You get up, pick up your food, wait at the grill while it is cooked in front of you, bring it to the table and repeat. The waitress only takes care of drinks and deserts. My friend first left $1 tip at the grill, which was fine. But then when it came down to paying the tip, she still wanted to give a 20% tip. I was so confused "Wait, you already gave a dollar at the grill. What exactly did this waitress do to deserve $4??", I asked. But, that's just American mentality. You just leave a tip. And I understand why, because servers make practically slave labor wages without their tips. But, really, isn't tipping for showing appreciation for services rendered? What did she do? Remember that I wanted water not diet soda? Is that action really worth $4? Upon asking a friend who works as a waitress later, she recommends in that situation, asking the waitress what kind of tip is appropriate in that situation. It could be that she's paid more. Or it could be that she doesn't need to split her tips. You don't know until you ask. But, I'm much to shy to ask a question like that, personally.

Fast forward to a trip to the dim sum restaurant. You know, the ones where they bring the carts around and you pick what you want from your seat and they just place it on your table and mark your card? How the heck do you tip in this situation? There's no ONE waitress, but many. We left 20%, but we really wondered who was going to get those $3... doubtfully the people who actually gave us our food...

And then I've noticed that my parents and friends tend to over-tip. My first week home I was channel surfing and actually found a whole TV show which explained the etiquette of tipping. How much, when, where, etc. It was great. They explained that at an average restaurant, 15% should be the rule, 20% for extraordinary service. At a fancy restaurant, 20% is the rule. I'm fine with this rule, but as I count up what I see people leaving as tips, I notice that sometimes it's closer to 25-30% because either they're not doing the math properly or they don't have smaller bills so they just throw in more. I'm sure this used to happen all the time when I lived in the states, and I don't remember it bothering me, but now I look at that and get upset. "Why are you leaving so much!" and then, of course, I get looked at as a miserly scrooge as usual. Am I wrong for not wanting to pay more than I need to?

At least the good thing is, this time around visiting home, I'm not trying to "chogi-yo" the waiters like I was last time. Eye contact, eye contact... maybe it takes longer, but that's the norm here, I keep telling myself. What was your biggest reverse culture shock after returning to your home country?

Here are a list of rules from

15% – 20% for average – good service
May get a cut of table server’s tip; so tip your server extra to reward captain, or tip captain separately.
$1 – $2 a round -or- 15% to 20% of the tab, with a minimum of 50 cents per soft drink, $1 per alcoholic drink
Cocktail Waitresses:
$1 – $2 per drink
Sommelier or wine steward:
15% of cost of the bottle
Buffet Servers:
At least $1 per head if you get your own beverages. If you order beverages (or more) from the server, then you should tip 10-20% of the bill based on service quality.
Coatroom attendant:
$1 per coat
Room Service:
15% – 20%. You may want to see if gratuity has already been included in the tab.
Valet Attendant:
$2 – $5 average for each trip to the car, more may be appropriate given conditions. (Like weather or location)
Pool Attendant:
$1 – $2 for each service (providing towels or lounge chairs)
Showroom Maitre d’:
$1 – $2 for preassigned seats. For unassigned seating, you may tip according to where you want to sit (usually a tip over $50 will guarantee your seat)
Washroom attendant:
50 cents to $1
Taxi driver:
Varies depending on locality. Assume 15% will be enough; an extra $1 to $2 for help with bags.
Food delivery person:
The Greater of 15% of the bill or $3.00. Should tip 20% or more for a difficult delivery.
Grocery loader:
Check with store policy if tips are accepted. If so, $1 for bringing bags to car; $1.50 to $3 if you have more than 3 bags.
15% to 20%, minimum $1, for a haircut. For other services (shampoo, shave or manicure) tip $1 to $2 to service provider.
15% to 20%. (It is acceptable to tip owner, unless he or she says otherwise.)
Shampoo person:
Spa service:
15% to 20%. If service is provided by owner, no tip.
Coffee/food retailers w/ tip jars:
Tip is optional.
Tip is optional.
Gas attendant:
Tip is optional.
Skycap at airport:
$1 per bag if you check-in curbside; $2 per bag if skycap takes bags to check-in counter.
Hotel doorman:
$1 per bag for help with luggage; $1 per person for hailing a cab
Hotel bellhop:
$1 per bag for bringing luggage to your room (but a $2 minimum if you have just one bag)
Hotel housekeeper:
$2 to $5 per night
Hotel concierge:
$5 for getting you tickets or reservations ($10-plus if they’re hard to get). No tip required when you ask for directions.
Varies. Ask cruise line about customary gratuities.
Tip is optional, but recommended.
Tattoo/Body Piercing: 20%. More for custom or difficult work. Tattoo touch-ups min. $10, Jewelry insertions min. $5.00.


  1. I think on the west coast, we don't even tip over 10% of the food... My friend says she pays 20% just because she knows how hard the waiter and the waitresses work as she has been one herself. Me and my friends laugh at her when she pays 20% tip in a restaurant.. Boston is expensive to live in huh? Maybe they do have better service over there or else it'd be ridiculous to pay 20% tip..
    Oh and btw, there are tips in western restaurants of Korea, but they include it for you (9-10%) and it's written on the receipt (so you don't have a choice but to pay it). I think Outback does that, some other western seafood restaurants and also at some restaurants in the Incheon Airport.

  2. I know exactly what you're talking about. Reverse culture shock was something I experienced when I returned to the US 4 years ago.

    The worst part about tipping is if you complain about it to your friends, they'll give you a dirty look.

    Little do they know in Korea servers cut your meat and barbecue it for you too. No tip required!

  3. Oh, and those looks are dirty, let me tell you.

  4. So funny! I so know what you're saying!

    When I first came home from Germany was when I suffered the most reverse culture shock, and it was mostly to do with language. I couldn't tune the general public out and I felt insane! WHY CAN I UNDERSTAND ALL OF YOU?! Ha...

    The tipping was my other beef. It was bad enough after Germany (which, like Spain, only rounds up the bill with change), but after I came home from Korea it actually made me hateful. I also understand why it's necessary to help servers out in our part of the world, but why is the system so flawed? Why do restaurants get away with paying them so little?! It's ridiculous. I hate that tipping doesn't come from a genuine act of appreciation here; it's an obligation reinforced by social expectations and a strange tolerance those slave labour wages you mentioned.

    Gah. End rant. I just completely feel you on this!

  5. As someone who's been in the industry for a few years, 20% is the new standard for good service. Excellent service is usually 25%. In some states, (mostly on the west coast - Oregon, AK, WY, CA), the minimum wage is high enough ($7 - 8) that tipping lower is acceptable, but on the east coast (MD, VA, and plenty of others) the minimum wage for servers is 2.50, most of which is taken by taxes. So it makes sense that tipping more in certain states is neccessary for the livelihood of the server.

  6. Aimee, I'm glad I'm not the only one. I wish the system weren't so flawed! Servers should be allowed the same minimum wage as the rest of us. I just feel like tipping should be something you do out of appreciation and not out of obligation.