They Speak A Foreign Language In America

As an Australian visiting the United States of America, I’ve been brushing up on my foreign language skills.

But you’re both English-speaking countries. Don’t you speak the same language?

Well, I think that’s a debatable point but I wasn’t actually talking about the spoken or written language.

Q: What’s the difference between a canoe and an Australian?

A: A canoe can tip.

If there is one thing that can strike more fear into the heart of an Australian visiting the USA than its lack of gun control it is the concept of tipping.


Who to tip, when to tip, how much to tip…. It’s all a mystery to the average Australian.

It has always amazed me that two countries that began life as colonies of the British Empire could evolve so differently. Perhaps it is because one was founded primarily by pilgrims and settlers and the other by the criminal refuse of the Mother Country.

Tipping does exist in Australia but it is confined mostly to high end restaurants. Cafés have started putting tip jars on their counters but the only expectation is that you might drop in the couple of coins you were just handed in change for your coffee.

Even in restaurants, a tip is not really expected. It certainly is not, as it was for us at a restaurant the other night in New York, included in the bill.

You may, if you felt the food was outstanding and the service excellent, add a little extra when paying. Rounding up to the next five or ten dollars is reasonable.

I often think Americans must excel in the mathematical topic of percentages, given they must constantly work out tips based on an expected percentage.

What I will never understand is the expectation of a tip even if the food was ordinary and the service indifferent.

It is not just the value of the tip that is confusing to Australians, it is how extensive tipping is across American society. Hotels are a particular case in point.

Leaving a tip for the person who comes in to clean your room is, frankly, a bizarre concept to us. There is an implicit understanding that, having paid hundreds of dollars a night for a room, all standard expenses related to that room are covered. Certainly, it is expected that the person who comes to clean your room is being paid a wage to do that job out of those hundreds of dollars you just handed over at reception.

But this is where I start to get an understanding of why tipping is so important in America. In Australia, we fight hard to ensure everyone is earning a reasonable living wage whatever their occupation. To be honest, we have some more work to do on that but the situation is nowhere near as dire as it seems to be in the USA.

The minimum wage in New York State is currently US$8.75/hour. It’s even lower in many other states and six states don’t even have a minimum wage. (Ref.) In Australia, the minimum wage applies across all states and is currently set at A$16.87/hour (US$13.07). (Ref.)

Australia also has universal healthcare, so even though the minimum wage is low, those on low incomes can access free medical care. In America, where much of healthcare is an additional cost to be borne (unless one is lucky enough to have employer-provided health insurance), those on even lower wages must rely on the generosity of strangers and tourists to help them cover these costs.

As an Australian, it’s hard not to see compulsory tipping as a form of legalised begging for the poor.

I hope we don’t see extensive tipping become the norm in our country. I hope we continue to try and ensure every person is paid a liveable wage.

But we will continue to leave a few dollars on the table for the person who comes to clean our room while we are visiting the USA.

Australians can tip. We just don’t understand why.



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42 thoughts on “They Speak A Foreign Language In America

  1. When my daughter worked for an American cruise ship line she certainly wasn’t earning $8.75 an hour, although her accommodation, food and travel from USA to Australia and back three times was paid for by the company. The staff wasn’t allowed to accept tips either. She had three marvellous contracts in the Caribbean, the Bahamas and Alaska so she figured it all balanced out in the end!

    Liked by 2 people

      • She was working for Disney and found them to be a wonderful employer. She was given so many opportunities to see places and do all the activities. They are very strict on values and behaviour but that didn’t bother her. She had a wonderful time. I have heard though that other cruise lines don’t treat their employees so well.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree MOSY! I think it is shameful that people aren’t paid a working wage. Even worse is the growing practice of unpaid “internships”. I think of it as legalized slavery. It seems to have proliferated everywhere.

    In the past we became so confused by when and how to tip while travelling, we simply defaulted to Tip Always.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sigh. I was wondering where my reply to your comment went and I found it further down as a normal comment. I’ve deleted that one but here’s what it said (in proper reply to your wonderful comment):
      We thought we were ready for it (armed with $70 worth of $1 bills) but we stumbled at the first hurdle – the shuttle bus from the airport. We’d pre-booked but still waited nearly an hour to be picked up. Even when the driver did arrive, he seemed in no hurry to leave. And there was the sign on the van door “We appreciate tips for excellent service.” Well, it wasn’t excellent. It wasn’t even decent. So tip or no tip? No tip, we decided. Then he got chatty on the way, being friendly. So, now tip or no tip? It was more than our tired Left Home 34 Hours Ago brains could cope with. We gave him $1. But it felt wrong.


  3. People here who work jobs that demand tips can make as little as 2 dollars an hour. That’s why I try to tip 20% unless the service was bad. Everything in American society is set up to make the rich richer.uh

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s appalling. Just… appalling. How can anyone live on that? It’s so unpredictable, how can they possibly budget?
      Learning how low the wages are is what helped us come to terms with having to tip so much. But it still doesn’t make it right.

      Liked by 2 people

      • In NYC wait-staff may make much more, but, yeah, it is not a living wage. I’m going to censor myself before I get too political, but no, it isn’t fair to the people who have to rely on tips or to society as a whole.

        Liked by 1 person

    • A fancy meal at home for the two of us might cost $200. (A very fancy one!) A 20% tip would be $40. That’s unheard of. If the experience had been special we might tip an extra $10.
      I can get annoyed about my country and its deficiencies but whenever I travel, I realise just how lucky we are in so many ways.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. I don’t blame you for being confused. We are too and we live here! I am laughing at the timeliness of this post because of something that happened to my Taiwanese friend, Jennifer, the first time she came to Vegas. Let’s just say that they don’t tip cab drivers in Taiwan and it didn’t go over too well on the Strip. We laugh about it to this day! I’m planning a post about it one of these days so don’t want to give away the punch line!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh, I feel for your friend. We don’t tip cabbies either. We haven’t taken a cab here yet. (Although, with an early race in Central Park on Saturday, we might have to.) We walk everywhere and we eat out of supermarkets in part to avoid the tipping thing. 😉


  5. It has always been amusing to watch diners (woman usually at lunch) who try to determine the tip for each of their meals, which is now 20%. It would be nice not to tip, but the wait staff doesn’t make much money and they have to divide the tips. Even the bus boy collects his share. It’s the same problem with all travelers, trying to figure out the money, and who gets it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can’t even get my head around factoring in an extra 20% every time you eat somewhere. People always say it’s cheap to eat out in America. Now we know why. I’d rather pay more for the meal in the first place and have the staff paid properly.


  6. In Australia I noticed travel cruisers being advertised with tips included in the fare but my good American friend told me regardlesof that, one is expected to tip on an American cruise liner. I don’t understand how the richest nation in the world can have the lowest wages so that tipping is almost a wage paid by the public, so that the workers can stay alive. If things are that crook, why not set up enough soup kitchens and let the Chinese run America?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I finally got here, H – running so far behind. Very sorry to’ve not known it was here.
    You’re just and fair re the comparison of hourly wages; but it’s one of the reasons we never considered travelling to America. I want to be able to choose whether or not to tip; and I want to be able to base it (as you point out) on the service rendered.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve never been to America before and so have never been coerced into or had the urge to tip service staff. Like you, I reckon it’s hard working out how much to tip. Tipping is common in Malaysia too when you’ve eaten a big meal at a fancy restaurant – usually twenty dollars covers it. I do hope compulsory tipping doesn’t get introduced to Australia like the States, it’s confusing. Many do think the minimum wage in Australia is high compared to other countries. Then again, the cost of living here is high.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. If I wasn’t typing this on my phone, you might enjoy a long diatribe from me about minimum wage in the US. No one can really live on that, it’s disgraceful. Tipping is always at your discretion, no matter the sign or look from the person with their hand out. If you have poor service and still feel you must tip, talk to the manager or whoever is in charge and let them know about your experience. The restaurants and venues worth returning to will take care of you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We’ve really only had a couple of experiences where tipping was expected (we’re cheap travellers who eat out of supermarkets and bakeries a lot and walk everywhere!) and both times the bill… sorry, check… arrived with the tip already added (20% in one case, 22% in the other). Luckily we were happy with the service so we just paid it. (Although, 22% is an awful lot to tack on by our standards.)

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I’m afraid we do it in Europe too. Waiters and cleaners get mean wages and it’s accepted that you top them up – unless the service was bad. Many restaurants in the UK include service and then you do not need to tip… otherwise it is 10% (always a fun bit of maths at the end of a meal). My daughter, working in America, is a theatre director. She gets good, sometimes prestigious work, for which she is paid peanuts. To supplement this she also works part-time in a wine bar. There she is paid even less than peanuts, but earns comfortably from the tips (and grumbles about the Europeans who don’t understand the system… heaven knows what she says about the Aussies!).

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Terrific post H. The first time I had my haircut in Switzerland, I was astonished by the bill, and then asked for a tip! Never had a haircut there again. They came and asked, so kindly, if I’d like my nails done too, I thought how kind! Fortunately I didn’t accept. I was so naive, after being brought up in Australia. Glad you are finding the States interesting!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Barbara. We’ve only eaten out twice so far (we travel on the cheap!) and both times they’ve just added the tip to the bill. Easier than having to work it out, admittedly, but a bit presumptuous. Fortunately, we’ve had good food and service both times so we haven’t had to quibble.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. It’s an appalling situation that in a country that prides itself on being the leader of the Western world (whether one agrees with that or not is irrelevant) the minimum wage in one of their first-world cities, such as NYC, is such a pittance. Extraordinary and utterly shameful.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Pingback: 9 Things I Learned In New York City | Master of Something I'm Yet To Discover

  14. I live in Canada. They tip here. In a local Facebook group [for this city], I’m a member of, someone had read that some places in the States are going to try the same system as in Europe; that it’s all included in your check. They asked the group members’ opinion on this. The strange part was that almost all of them was against it! I’m not from here, I hate the tipping, so I was really surprised.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I guess in a way we include it in the bill. It’s just that it’s not a tip – it’s a higher price for the food because the employees get paid better. Personally, it’s a system I prefer. Subsidising people’s wages through your tips because they don’t get paid enough to begin with is just unbelievable to me.


      • It is, to me too … also the fact that they can’t live off their wages.

        Besides, your blog title here, reminded me of what Oscar Wilde once said: ‘two nations separated by a common language’ … [i.e. Britain and USA] LOL

        Liked by 1 person

        • Oh yes, that’s one of my favourite things about blogging and having friends the world over. The number of times other English speakers have told me they’ve never heard of a word or a phrase I’ve used. Never ceases to surprise me. 🙂


          • I’m so thankful for the English language, being a native Swedish speaker myself. If we didn’t start English that early in school, we’d be totally isolated, with such a small language. To me, it has meant a lot on so many levels … 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

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