personal finance

You depend on those home deliveries – so stop being so British about tipping | Stefan Stern

Where I live the most dangerous place to stand right now is in the hallway, when there’s a knock at the door and someone (not me, clearly) is expecting a delivery. Lockdown life is lived at constant risk of being trampled by eager online shoppers about to receive a parcel. One of the somewhat unexpected consequences of the pandemic has been the surge in the volume of packages, goods and meals arriving at our doors throughout the day. The postman always rings twice, but he’s a mere beginner compared with DPD, Yodel, Deliveroo, DHL, UPS …

If we cannot go to the shops the shops will have to come to us. And so they have, thanks to the thousands of new drivers and couriers who have emerged to provide this service through parcel companies and platforms. These are hardly secure or well-paid jobs, of course. Rather, it is often a form of bogus “self-employment”, with the drivers – rather than companies they serve – providing their own vehicle, fuel, insurance and so on. Don’t be surprised if they don’t always smile like on the ads.

This could be how things are for some time to come. Shouldn’t those of us, then, who are lucky enough to be able to afford it consider tipping, or tipping more generously, some of these hardworking people who come to our doors at all hours, seven days a week? The mixture of surprise and relief that I see whenever I fish out a few quid or top up a Deliveroo rider’s fee tells me that tipping is not all that common. Jonathan Clarke, a musician, told the BBC in November that only one in four of his Deliveroo customers gave a tip.

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Tipping can be a social and cultural nightmare. On this issue I wear my bourgeois guilt heavily. One Christmas I nearly broke my foot rushing downstairs to try to catch the bin men with my festive envelope.

I also had an upsetting experience as a young man on my first work trip to the US, which may have shaped my views. I was staying in a company apartment in downtown Manhattan and ordered in a Chinese meal. A young rider duly appeared at the door and asked for the fee. “Just a minute, I think I’ve got that exactly,” I said in a cheery and doubtless highly irritating English voice. I handed over the precise amount. There was a pause as the uncomprehending young scooter rider stared furiously back at me. And then suddenly he marched off, shouting: “I’m never coming back here!” This was not my only cultural misstep of the night – the light meal I thought I had ordered turned out to be enough to feed a family of four.

British tourists in the US regularly feel the bitter legacy of previous UK travellers who established our dreadful reputation for being poor tippers. At Katz’s, the famed deli on New York’s Lower East Side, the kind but the tired woman waiting on my table pointed to a bowl, saying: “The tips go here!” And more recently, at an already ruinously expensive meal in California, the waiter delivered the (vast) bill with the curt observation: “20% is the usual amount to tip.”

Not every country or culture believes in tipping. In China or Japan, it is far less common and potentially insulting to offer a tip at the wrong time or in the wrong way. Dutch taxi drivers do not expect a tip, apparently, but French ones do. And so on.

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Attitudes to tipping also vary according to age. A 2019 YouGov survey of more than 2,000 people in the UK found that 41% of over 55-year-olds always leave a tip for their waiter, while only 19% of 18 to 24-year-olds do. Only 29% tip their hairdresser; but again there is an age divide between the 40% of over-55s and the 16% of 18- to 24-year-olds who tip. Doubtless there is a “from each according to his ability” factor here.

Tipping is getting a bit harder in practical terms, as cash becomes a rarer commodity. Notes and coins are not exactly Covid-compliant. But does the cashless technology allow for an easy top-up that will definitely go straight to your server? It is not always clear.

I like tipping. Yes, it reduces some sense of guilt. But it’s not just that. Good service should be noticed and rewarded. And low-paid people need more generosity from those who can afford to show it.

I was taught this early on. As my father lay in bed, dying as it turned out, just before Christmas, he asked whether I had made sure that the postman and the milkman and the refuse people and the paperboy had received some cash in the traditional end-of-year envelope. This mattered to him. I can’t say he had any profound final words to deliver to the world. But he was certainly thinking about other people right up to the end.


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