During my college days, experienced friends never let me worry about this. They took care of this in the bars and the restaurants. They did so effectively that the alcohol bill in the bars showed lesser number of drink than ordered.
During my initial years of employment, I never had to visit the restaurants where tipping was mandatory or necessary. Even though Kochi boasted of expensive restaurants during those time, I could never afford them. Instead, I tried my hand on tipping at the local bars. Tipping depended on how magnanimous I felt at the moment of tipping. I was magnanimous up to Rs 20 – a princely sum compared to my standard of living! Even this paltry sum guaranteed a welcome smile during the next visit and the waiters lingered over my table for a minute longer while taking orders.
Everything changed when I relocated to US. Here, you tip for everything. During my Fresh-Off-the-Boat days there, friends helped me with standards of tipping. There were other places where I got educated too; especially a dingy restaurant on Oak Tree Road (Iselin, NJ). Fine print on their menu proudly proclaimed 15% of the bill amount has to be given as tips. As if this wasn’t enough, the golden words were printed and displayed on the walls. When I was staring at these words on the walls with mouth wide open before finding a table, an experienced friend whispered in a conspiratorial tone followed with a wink. “It is a buffet! We don’t have to tip!”. This was my first lesson on tipping.
The second important lesson was in a Chinese-Muslim restaurant in Milpitas, California during the dotcom bust era. There were around a dozen and more of us. All of us were subcontractors at one of telecommunication company near Mercury News office and some of our contracts were getting over. Although this should have created a panic in us, we were young and hence called for a celebration together. Aren’t we ignorant when we are young? (Ironically, when I returned to India 5 years later, my colleagues chose the same restaurant to give me farewell party!). After lunch, someone told the person who was checking the items listed on the bill, “Don’t tip. We are more than a dozen. They would have added the service charge on the bill itself!. So, we don’t have to tip them separately”. Seeing the quizzical look on my face, he explained to me, “When there are 6 or more people, the bills will have a service charge line item compulsorily. So, the tips are included in the bill!”
I used to be confused when I came back to India for good. How much do I tip? There are no standards in India then. After a lot of soul searching and consulting with other returnees, I have gone to my old ways of tipping. In addition to being magnanimous, I also relied on my satisfaction levels to tip these days.