There’s a guy in the neighbourhood who washes the cars in the morning. He’s a really old guy, and he’s really friendly. Generally, I don’t talk to people unless they talk to me first [or unless the conversation is online]. Out in the ‘real’ world, I often let people make the first approach. I got friendly with him because he’d say hi at 6.00 a.m. as I walked into the gym. We’ve never said more than good morning, but it’s now pretty much routine.

Two days into 2011, he said a few more words. He hinted that I hadn’t given him his New Year. Please note that he doesn’t work for me, I don’t know his name, and I don’t even own a car … yet. I was put off, but I was in a good mood, so I laughed it off and walked on. I’m surprised I didn’t frown or look embarrassed.

It reminded me of my watchman in Dar. When I was moving house, he demanded a tip. I was going to give him one anyway, but I was offended that he asked, especially as it was a company house, and the reason I was moving is that I was no longer eligible for staff housing. I had explained all this clearly, but in his mind, I was Kenyan, and I was raising a baby on my own, ergo, I must have money.

Conversely, the guy at School Outfitters was courteous, fun, and respectfully flirty. I bought uniforms late due of a late-clearing cheque. That meant I couldn’t take princess with me for fitting, as she was already in school. I had to guesstimate her size using a complex algorithm which involved her height, her shoe size, her weight in pounds … and buying three sizes larger than last year. So I went to the shop armed with … last year’s receipts. Sharp, yes?

When the guy recognized his handwriting from last year, he bantered a lot more, gave advice on silicone swimming caps … and asked for soda after. I gladly gave it to him. Maybe it was the way he asked, or maybe he’s just a really good flirt. His Muindi boss was furious … and I hope it’s not offensive to call him a Muindi Boss. iCon?

All this made me think about waitresses, bag boys, and all the other workers in the tip-based industry. I’ve always felt rather begrudging about people who ask to be tipped for doing their jobs. Isn’t that why you draw a wage?

I’m reminded of the debate at the beginning of Reservoir dogs. Not the Madonna debate, though that’s my favourite part of the movie. I mean the next debate, the one about the bill. Mr Pink says he doesn’t do tips, and Mr White says the waitresses need tips because it’s how they survive. Their salary is way too low to live on.

Here’s my question. Managers decide waiters’ salaries based on the assumption that they’ll be tipped. That’s why – if sitcoms are to be trusted – tips are part of culture in some places. It’s like part of the bill or something, No thought, no argument, no reasoning … it’s just something you do. Still, do we tip because the wages are low, or are the wages low because we tip? Who’s the chicken and who’s the egg? Also, who decided waitresses should be tipped and hairdressers shouldn’t? How come no one ever thinks to tip their dentist or their shoe shine guy, or even their house help? Aren’t they all low paying jobs?

Well maybe not the dentist, but you get my point. Who decided the hierarchy of tipping?

I suppose after a while, you stop fighting it and go with the flow, just like Mr Pink did in the movie. I don’t issue tips out of habit. I give it if you were really nice to me, or if I don’t feel like carrying the change. I’ve never tipped more than 50 bob, and I was amazed to see a lady tip a G at Java, seeing as that cost way more than my entire meal. Still it was Java Gigiri, and the air is slightly different there. I think it’s all the trees.

Kharma is a funny b*tch, and she’ll probably make a me a waitress in my next life, just to prove a point. But until then, I’m going to wonder why some careers demand tips and others don’t.

I’ll close with an urban legend I heard about Grand Regency [or whatever it’s calling itself now]. A client was calculating what to give as a tip when he was forewarned [the legend doesn’t say by who] …

“Don’t bother. He probably earns more than you do.”

342 thoughts on “On the issue of tipping

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