October 14, 2011

Note to Americans: Tipping Really Is Not Necessary Optional

"It's not tipping I believe in. It's overtipping."
— Vincent 'Vinnie' Antonelli in My Blue Heaven (1990)

So there is a major difference in philosophies between the U.S. and Spain in questions of socially correct consumption. To quote José Ángel Oliván, the president of Spain's Union of Consumers:
"En España los precios son finales." [Translation: In Spain prices are final.]
This means that unlike in the U.S., sales tax ("el IVA") is included in the display price for a product (no having to do complicated percentage calculations on your purchases), and at restaurants or bars you're not expected to add a tip ("la propina") to help recompense someone for their services. Whereas in the U.S. waiters can be paid less than minimum wages on the assumption that you, the customer, will tip them, in Spain labor laws ensure that waiters make adequate income without relying on the generosity of their customers.

To put it succinctly, in Spain you do not ever _need_ to tip. And you certainly never would leave 15%.

I am beginning to suspect that this difference in practice also reflects a distinct vision of consumerism and labor rights. While Americans often see tipping as a kind of solidarity with the worker and evidence of kindness, I'm not sure that here in Spain a large tip is always received that way. Don't get me wrong, if you leave a big tip, the waiter most certainly will not complain. I just don't think he or she will necessarily see you as a kind, generous customer. Tipping here is really viewed as bourgeois culture, and thus evokes a kind class snobbery or excessiveness. Big tips are big reminders of economic disparities or antiquated ideas about classism and the superiority of the client.

That said, it is quite common for people to round up the bill rather than leave exact change. And certainly if the service is excellent, the restaurant quite fancy, and/or you are a large (or difficult) group, then it might be a good idea to leave a tip larger than a couple of euros.

A reader left a pretty good set of guidelines to follow on a forum of a (great) blog about life in Valencia:
"Some rules:
1) If you're a turist [sic] please tip generously. Enjoy being a guiri 
2) If you're an expat, still tip, but carefully
3) If you don't like the service, don't tip at all.
4) In bars, round up
5) In restaurants depends the amount of the bill. Round up 5% aprox [sic] is OK for bills up to 50-80€. But a tip more that 5€ is only justified if your party is a lot of people or the service is great
6) Taxis 1€ (or round up if it's a short ride)
7) Hair cut 1€"
It's not just Americans who are unsure about what is the "correct" approach to tipping. It was the subject of a recent morning talk show (audio feed below) on Spain's national radio, and there was some divergence of opinion. (Though bear in mind that many listeners who said they did leave a tip were talking about amounts such as 50 cents or 1€. And I noticed that it was mostly the foreigners and immigrants  interviewed who were advocating it.)

But really, nobody is going to mind if you don't leave a tip. In Spain they really, truly are optional.


Will - My Spanish Adventure said...

I love being a "guiri", as for the tipping I think Spain, and the rest of Europe, has got it dead on.

An Expat in Spain said...

Will, one definitely has to embrace their inner guiri! And thanks for noting that this tipping tip goes not just for Spain, but for all of continental Europe.

Reg WB said...

This is great! So confusing! Not Hemingway's Spain, do you have an email? I'd like to get in touch!

Reg from The Spain Scoop

Christopher Alexander said...

Right before we left for Spain, there was a survey, asking those in the US if we ever tip more thn 20% (the typical amount). The majority of people---myself included---said yes. It's a hard habit t break, so yes, in Spain, we over-tip.

An American Spaniard said...

Christopher, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I was surprised by the radio show (linked to in this entry) that there even existed Spaniards who believed in tipping. I've never met one personally. Everyone I know here in Spain, who tips, generally rounds up, almost always within the 1 euro range. Unless we're a massive group or there is some very special circumstance that warrants a special tip (again, closer to 5% or less).

In the U.S. I always tip, because the poor waiters often don't get paid minimum wage - it's a social justice issue there. It's sort of like adding taxes (which in Europe are included in the price, while in the U.S. not) - a hidden cost. But I don't tip because I "believe in it".

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