Tipping Hell

I grew up in the US, so when I’m there, I know how to tip. It’s not too hard to know how to tip in my adopted home, China, because you just don’t do it. You almost never tip in China. Easy. Thus, I was totally unprepared for Turkey on the tipping front.

Somewhere around the year 2002 I abandoned the Lonely Planet and guidebooks altogether. I figured it’s more fun to just get by on scattered intelligence gleaned from friends, random strangers, and haphazard internet searches. This has always worked. But when I got to Turkey, I wasn’t sure what to tip.

I’ve got to say, not knowing what to tip really sucks. We couldn’t tip like rich foreigners on vacation because (1) we’re not rich, and (2) for a while we were having problems getting our Chinese credit cards to work, so we were tight on cash. So we were trying hard to tip only when we needed to.

At one restaurant, though, we clearly under-tipped. We didn’t realize it until we were already on our way out and we the waiter’s reaction to what we left. Man, that does make you feel like a jackass. We were at the point where it was too late to add to the tip, and we didn’t have the change to do so anyway (you don’t supplement a lousy $3 tip with $50).

For days, we were caught in this tipping hell.

Lesson learned: get the tipping rules straight before you go. (You gotta love China!)


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Little Cheese Says: November 1, 2007 at 6:03 am

    My sister and I have a saying about tipping: “tip and leave.” Immediately after tipping, leave! This way there is no cause for embarrassment, incase the waiter thinks you didn’t tip correctly, because you are already out the door. So, next time remember to tip and leave!

  2. Little Cheese,

    That’s a good policy. We actually tried to do that, but in this case we were too slow. (Also, at the time we thought we left an OK tip, so we saw no reason to hurry, but later (especially after seeing the waiter’s expression) we realized it was probably a really bad tip.)

  3. John-

    I know exactly what you mean. I am back in the US now, and paying the bill at a restaurant is such a pain in the ass. First of all the numbers use decimals (i.e. $7.43) sales tax is added on, plus the tip, and then you have to split it up with your friends. I think in this respect China has the West beaten on convenience. Your bill is always a nice round number with no decimals (i.e. 57 RMB), tax is included, and there is no tip…not to mention the fact that one person pays the entire bill, then somebody else picks up the tab the next time….no multiplication or division skills required…I never realized how much of a pain this was until returning from China after 3 years.

  4. After working in food service for like 5 years, I am intimately aware of how important tipping can be.
    I got to listen to the waitstaff talk (er, bitch/rejoice) about EVERY customer’s tip.
    Trust me…they remember everyone…

  5. This should be printed out and taken next time you go on vacation

    By the way just be happy that nothing more severe happened 🙂

  6. That cart would be useful, except for two things:
    1) You can’t tip Belgians (or Italians, or Irish) in dollars. Well, you can, but that either leaves them with the hassle of taking your dollar to the bank to exchange it for one euro something, or it leaves you with the hassle of converting the amount of one dollar to euros — what is it, 0.85 eurocent or something? — before tipping.
    2) Don’t know about other places, but you don’t tip restaurant staff in China or Taiwan, so the chart has at least two mistakes. For Turkey, it says ’round up’.

  7. tipping was always meant to be a little gift that if you had a little extra money and the service done an extreamly good job. I dont know when it became the default to tip and I would take it as an insult that someone would expect a tip at all. I have heard all the reasons for tipping such as employers not paying enough, they need to pay college fee’s, whatever.

    I like America, but its this crazy tipping culture that prevents me from wanting to visit there. My country has recently adopted this tipping system and it just makes me uneasy.

  8. You don’t tip in Australia either. I think at the fancy restaurants you do, but mom and pop places you don’t. It was shocking moving back to the states and having to do math in my head again to tip at restaurants. Maybe that’s another reason why people flock to the fast food burger/fried chicken chains since tipping isn’t done there.

  9. I’ve had a pretty embrassing situation before. When I visited Macau, I wasn’t sure how to tip at a local Portugal resterurant. I was so hesitating to tip partially coz I didn’t have too much left. I was thinking about whether to ask the waitor while I was eating. That was a pretty fancy resterurant on the Main Street( forgot the name of the street where Macau Civic Center was at) though. I ended up overtipping I guess. I really feel ur pain.

    I feel bad about “one pays for all” plus I hate finding stupid “chance” to pay back. that’s just tryin’ a little too hard from my point of view. I prefer to split bill whenever I can.

  10. In Taiwan I was at first delighted by not having to leave tips, but as time goes on I’m noticing that restaurant service is generally rather poor here… e.g. I’ve had a waiter forget my order only a handful of times in the US, but it happens almost every other time here. Almost makes me wish for a tipping culture :).

  11. I was curious from reading the post, so I googled for “tipping in Turkey” and found this:

    “Tips (gratuities) are generally modest in Turkey (a few percent of the price paid), although Americans tend to do their thing and tip big, which is leading Turkish tourism industry workers to expect big tips from Americans who travel to Turkey….

    RESTAURANTS: Small tips (5% to 10%) are not necessary, but are appreciated in inexpensive establishments. In luxury restaurants, tip 10% to 15%.”

    What was the offensive tip you left? Perhaps paragraph A applied to the waiter’s annoyance.

  12. As somebody who comes from the service industry (delivering pizzas in high school), I have always tipped and will always tip, whether I am in China or Timbuktu.

  13. I don’t understand this revulsion of tipping- so much so that someone is reluctant to visit the US for the sole reason that he might have to tip. What’s the big deal? People in the service industry are under-paid and rely on their tips to make a living wage.


    Another good reason to lug a Lonely Planet around is for the maps. Not that their maps are all that good, but I hate buying maps at newsstands and having to carry them around, unfolding them in the middle of town squares and the like. Also the various health/emergency tips are handy too.

    But I agree- as far as accommodation/food/travel tips word of mouth is much better.

  14. Well, we did round up, so I’m not sure if we made some mistake or not. I guess we’ll never know.

    Ah, the joys of travel! 🙂

  15. Tipping should be for great service. Not mandatory. Not sure what the French and high-end hotel restaurants are thinking when it’s added on the bill.

    In Egypt, tips, ‘baksheesh’, are asked for everywhere – so often that it’s hard to determine whether you’re being asked for a tip or a bribe. I was asked for tip in return for taking pictures in tombs with 3000 year-old paintings. I declined but many don’t. Tourists are asked for baksheesh so often it’s one of the first Arabic words they learn.

    In China, doctors are given tips, although they just call them 红包 (hongbao) while foreigners call them bribes. Can you imagine, doctors arguing that they don’t make enough money (most don’t in China) so they deserve tips for good service… ‘ah, you wanted the REAL medicine, didn’t you?’

    Some people say that tipping leads to better service. While the service in most Chinese restaurants sucks, in my experience it’s much better where the management is good (where tipping is still absent). Obviously the typical 家常餐厅 doesn’t have strong management, so the service depends entirely on the mood of the staff at any given time.

  16. Mark in Dunan Says: November 8, 2007 at 10:11 pm

    I was a restaurant busboy in my high school days in the US, and we were supposed to get 10% of the tips received, but the waitresses always stole it from us and left us only with about a dollar an hour in tips. One kindly patron even pressed a dollar into my hand because I’d done something special for them, and a waitress gave me a chewing-out later on for not handing it in.

    Needless to say, I no longer have much sympathy for wait-staff, and now prefer to tip the sweating laborers who wouldn’t otherwise get anything extra for their efforts.

    Anybody know if you tip in Eastern Europe? I got caught unaware after a meal in Bratislava and just ended up rounding up to the next 50 korun and handing it to them, which they accepted.

  17. For the non-USians, let me explain the tipping conundrum. I’m from a largely non-tipping country (Australia) but lived in the US and A for 6 years, so now I get the worst of both worlds – I’m anxious when it comes to tipping but feel guilty when I don’t. 🙂

    The problem with tipping, when you aren’t used to it, is the social awkwardness – being uncertain with any transaction whether you’ll have to tip, and not wanting to be cheap, nor wanting to be taken for a ride. I hate it when I don’t have any small bills myself. It’s certainly not cheapness, just being uncertain whether you’re doing the right thing.

  18. coljac,

    Yes, exactly. And of course it’s much worse when you really are short on cash.

  19. One of the troubles about tipping in the US is that in many states, waiters are paid slave wages (around $2-3 per hour) and expected to make up the difference in tips.

    So, yes, the tip is not a favor.

    If the restaurant engaging in this practice is still charging high prices, that’s criminal, if you ask me. 😛

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