Thursday, June 12, 2008

In Defence of the Beckhams

Victoria and David Beckham caused consternation on Tuesday when they enjoyed a 'complimentary' meal at a posh Los Angeles restaurant - and then neglected to tip their waiting staff.

While Channel 2 relabelled Victoria 'Cheap Spice,' I actually sympathised.

Remember, Posh and Becks are not the brightest expatriate Brits to come to these shores - and the etiquette regarding tipping in America is Byzantine.

I'm going to give the Beckhams the benefit of the doubt and assume they made an honest (and common) mistake - they thought their 'free' meal would be exactly that - free.

In reality, American dining involves doing business with two contractors - the ones who prepare your food and the ones who deliver it. Unless you get your noggin around this principle, the tipping system in America makes no sense at all.

How Tipping Works

Typically, in the states, a restaurant pays it's waiters and waitresses below minimum wage and their pay-packet is made up of tips - generally 15% of a meal's cost.

Therefore, the price on the bottom of your 'check' only covers the food and beverages. The payment for getting them delivered is on top of that.

This is why Brits abroad should never make the mistake of 'only tipping for good service.'

If the service was great, by all means tip more. But if you food arrived at your table at all, you are still obliged to leave 15% of the bill to your waiter or waitress. The tip is the price of their service, not a reward.

If service is genuinely bad - and I mean rude, untimely or just plain wrong (and they didn't try to make it up to you) it's acceptable to leave a reduced tip. If you're skimping on a tip merely because the waitress forgot to top up your coffee on her last visit to your table, you're being cheap.

The myth of a 'free meal.'

My father always warned me that 'there's no such thing as a free lunch.'

When it comes to American restaurants, he's absolutely right.

If you, like the Beckhams, ever find yourself receiving a complimentary meal, remember the golden rule of American dining.

Only the food and beverages are free. You still need to pay the price of having it served to you!

This is where David and Victoria got it wrong. They thought (entirely understandably, from a British perspective) that the 'free' meal meant they could keep their wallets in their pockets. 'Free' involves 'no cost.'

In fact, only the chef's side of the bargin was 'free.' The waiting staff still expected to get their payment for serving the celebrity couple.

Once you've got your head around it, the concept is fairly straightforward. It's no different to getting a free item by mail order - you still need to pay the Post Office to deliver it.

I got caught by this myself, when I got a 'free' drink from a bartender, who was then very pissed off that I didn't tip him for pouring it (well, it's not 'free' then, is it?)

It doesn't need to make sense [That's good, since it doesn't - Editorial Bear] - it's just how it is here in America. Learning to tip gracefully is just part of adapting to the American way of life.

After a year in the States, I'm surprised Posh and Becks hadn't realised that.

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