An American friend asked today how much to tip for salon treatment (specifically a pedicure and a manicure) in the UK. Beyond haircuts I’ve never had much of what you might call salon treatment, but I felt reasonably confident in advising that a tip wouldn’t be expected. Other Brits (plus a couple of Danes) agreed. The basic principle in the UK—as in other parts of Europe—is that a tip is a reward for particularly good service, not a basic component of the server’s wages. In some countries, employers are allowed to pay waiting staff less than the minimum wage in the expectation that their staff will make up the difference in tips. This practice is illegal in the UK.
It struck me, however, that British people treat waiting staff as a special case. In particular, we tend to tip table-waiting staff about 10% as standard. I’m really not very sure why this is, but two facts seem relevant. First, I think I’m right in saying that most British people would be more likely to tip for evening meals than for lunch. Second, we’re more likely to tip in posher establishments: more in restaurants than pubs (even assuming that in both cases we’re talking about having hot meals brought to us at our table). In general, it seems that the more the meal is an “event”, the more we’re likely to tip. This leads me to wonder whether tipping in a restaurant in the UK is done at least as much as a part of the ritual of going out to dinner as as a reward to the waiting staff for their service. Going out for a sit-down evening meal is a slightly extravagant experience (you wouldn’t generally do it on a tight budget)—about treating yourself and others, and probably to some extent about displaying wealth—and part of that experience is being waited on, and rewarding the waiting staff more than required is part of the experience of being waited on and part of the experience of splashing out.
That’s my hypothesis anyway. Alternatives welcome.
Additional note: It should be noted that there are two parts to my hypothesis: one part says nothing about why we tip as standard in restaurants, merely that we continue to do so because it’s become part of the ritual of going out for dinner. The other part suggests that we tip in restaurants because paying more than required is a means of being extravagant.