Jonny McCambridge: To tip or not to tip, that is the question...

You get to a point in your existence where you don’t experience many things which you haven’t done before.

Johnny McCambridge at the White House
Johnny McCambridge at the White House

However, the past week has been radically different. Nearing the age of 50, I visited the United States for the first time in my life.

Prior to leaving I spoke to a few people about what to expect. A number of the conversations were startlingly similar.

‘What you need to know is that you have to tip everyone in the US.’

‘What, everyone?’

‘Yes, everyone.’

I was rather cowed by this. I have always had problems with the concept of tipping. To be clear, not the principle, but the practicality.

I hate having the responsibility of having to decide how much to give, not wanting to appear either cheap or overly extravagant. I would much rather the burden is taken off me and the additional charge simply added to the service.

I find myself in a taxi on the way to central Washington DC. I am telling myself over and over ‘don’t forget the tip…don’t forget the tip’.

I nervously am keeping an eye on the meter. If it stays below $60 then should I give the driver $80? I have no small notes and I worry that if it goes too far in excess of $60 then I’m going to have to give $100.

I arrive at the hotel and a nice man brings my heavy case to the room. I am discombobulated by the stress and strange environment.

He finishes the job and smiles at me. I smile back. He smiles some more, although there may be a trace of a grimace there.

‘Oh, the tip, I’m so sorry, hang on,’ I say in a panic as I fumble with my wallet.

But what is the etiquette for tipping someone who wheels my suitcase? Should I give $1? $5? $200?

The trip continues with me in this constant state of uncertain anxiety. I can’t find the light switch in the bathroom and have to call for help (‘It’s on the wall sir’). Do I need to tip?

Breakfast in this hotel is a DIY affair and I’m trying to set the microwave for three minutes to cook an egg muffin. On my first attempt it runs for three seconds. On my second, I set it to run for three hours. A kindly woman intervenes to help. Do I need to tip?

One of the porters is a corpulent and jolly fellow. Each time he sees me, he beams with enthusiasm.

‘How are you today sir?’ he exclaims.

I enjoy this form of good-natured banter.

‘Why I’m just dandy. How are you today my good man?’ I respond gaily.

‘I am simply wonderful. You have a good day sir.’

‘No, you have a good day.’

‘No, you have a good day!’

And so it continues.

But after a couple of days of this I begin to worry that I might be expected to tip him for displaying such extravagant enthusiasm and jollity.

I see him in the lobby the next morning.

‘Good morning sir, how are you on this fine day?’ he begins.

‘Mmm, ok,’ I mumble, staring at the floor.

I feel ashamed when I notice the hurt look in his eyes as he walks away.

I struggle to sleep at night in the unfamiliar room, troubled by the ongoing pressure of delivering appropriate tips.

When I do grab some moments of kip, I have unquiet dreams where the words ‘you need to tip everyone’ keep going around and around in my head.

I tip the barman, the receptionist and the woman who comes to clean my room. After a while I notice that the hotel staff seem to be overly eager to lend me as much assistance as possible.

I am returning to the hotel in a taxi one night when, after paying and tipping the driver, I strike my head on the corner of the car boot as I collect my belongings (yes, I know).

Although I’m dazed, I try to pretend that nothing has happened. That is until the concierge in the lobby sympathetically points out that I have blood gushing down my face. Do I need to tip him?

The tipping mania continues outside the hotel. I go to a 7-11 to buy a sandwich. I pay by card and the machine asks me if I want to leave a tip for 10%, 15%, 25% or more. I just wanted a sandwich.

It is the same when I try to buy a gift for my son from a toy store. I am in the shop for just a few minutes and am tempted to hit the button on the machine which indicates no tip. However, I look up and the harsh eyes of the retail assistant are watching every move. I leave a 25% tip and flee.

I am walking back to the hotel and struggling to get across a busy road. A driver slows down and waves me to proceed. Should I tip her?

A man is sitting on the pavement and asks me if I have any change. I fish a few dollars out of my wallet and hand them to him. I’m about to walk on, but then I remember where I am. I take the wallet back out and give him another 50 cents.

On this working trip one of my responsibilities is to attend an event where the US President Joe Biden will make a speech. The security is ferocious, and I have to queue for more than an hour just to get access to the grand building.

When it is finally my turn, I experience the most thorough security inspection I have ever undergone. My pockets and emptied and all the contents individually examined.

My rucksack is opened and emptied. The security man turns on my laptop, presumably to ensure that it is indeed a laptop and not a bomb. I am told I am not allowed to bring my video camera into the building, and it has to be left outside.

Then, he turns to my wallet. By this point in the trip I have stuffed the wallet with so many $1 and $5 notes that I cannot fasten the buckle.

The security man insists on taking out the large wad of small notes and going through them all individually to ensure that there is nothing concealed between them. This takes some time and I can hear growls of impatience and frustration from the crowd behind me.

‘Gee sir, you sure do have a lot of $1 bills,’ the security man says.

‘Well... you know, it’s for the tips,’ I say, realising immediately how stupid I sound.

He continues to examine my wallet. I wonder if I should tell him to just help himself to a tip.

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