I've just returned from three weeks in the US and I have to say I'm exhausted. From tipping.
I'm not one of those Australians who resents tipping for service when it's expected in a culture. I lived in New York for 10 years and I learnt very quickly that the wage structure means waiters and porters depend on tips for their income. The onus is on the person receiving the service to provide some of the compensation. It's pointless protesting this by short-changing the person giving the service. They'll suffer, not their bosses.
But over the years I've heard many of my compatriots loudly complain about tipping and begrudgingly leave much less than they ought. I'm not sure all of them have been mean-spirited. The concept of tipping is awkward for those raised believing that society should be egalitarian (although, sadly, I think we aren't very egalitarian at all these days). Because we tip 10 per cent at best here, and often not at all, the prospect of a mandatory 15 or 20 per cent on top of added taxes can be irksome, especially if the service isn't sparkling.
I'd be tipping more generously if I got a dollar for every time I've heard someone in the hospitality service complain, "Australians are the worst tippers". I heard it twice this trip.
I recall, years ago, sitting down in a diner near Times Square and having to endure a waitress painstakingly lecture us about the tipping structure, set off by the fact that we had merely opened our mouths and revealed our Australian accents.
I'm sure I get worse service because I'm an Australian and the servers expect that I'll be parsimonious with my small change.
I tend to over-tip as compensation. In New York, you're held to emotional ransom by the prospect that a taxi driver may chase you down the street if you don't leave enough. In fact, this has never happened to me, even when circumstances have dictated the tip I left wasn't quite enormous enough.
The truth is, New Yorkers don't tip if the service is crap or the taxi driver has a heavy foot on the brakes. I admire their sangfroid. I was once in a minor accident in New York caused by my taxi driver, who drove like a drunken sailor, but even then, as I was scrambling out of the car in the middle of Fifth Avenue, I left him a tip.
When you stay in luxury hotels for work, as I do, your hand is in your pocket constantly. You need a wad of dollar bills on hand for doormen, porters, concierges, room service, maids and so on. I find it exhausting because I'm always worrying, is this enough? Or will I seem like a cheapskate? And I'm always counting my change so that I don't have to ask a porter to, say, break a $20 bill, when I know he'd get the whole $20 from a more well-to-do guest. I always imagine them down in the luggage room comparing tips and griping about my few dollars.
I learned all this the hard way on my first overseas trip, where I'd been sent to Milan and Paris to report on the fashion collections for Vogue magazine.
One day in Paris, I found I had left my notebook somewhere and asked my hotel concierge if it had been found around the hotel. "Non, mademoiselle," he said very firmly.
I was devastated, as it contained all my notes from Milan. Every day I would go to the concierge and I'd be told the same thing. Finally, I mentioned my problem to an executive at Paris Vogue. He made a call to the hotel and told me they had the book at the front desk. And then he said, pointedly, "Make sure you pay the concierge 50 francs".
He'd had it all along but he'd been expecting me to grease his palm before he "found" it. I learned it was indeed astonishing what money can do.
So now I diligently double the tax in restaurants in New York (which equals a 16.5 per cent tip) and have $5 and $10 bills secreted about my person to hand out like Daddy Warbucks to the phalanx of staff that greet me whenever I cross a hotel threshold. I'm not Madonna, whom I am reliably informed tips all the staff at the bars she frequents.
But neither is anyone going to chase me down the street.