20 October 2009

Tipping and Over Tipping

Bloggerboy's other comment on the El Pegaso entry included a question about tipping. This entry on tipping is intimately related to the previous entry on the word Señor.

Here is the short answer to that question. In San Miguel de Allende a 20% tip is perilously close to over tipping. It would clearly be over tipping in other parts of México not so polluted with Americans. Ten percent is enough. Fifteen percent shows gratitude for exceptional service.

That is tricky initially because when one converts a 10% tip in pesos to American dollars in one's head, it always seem such a pitifully small, indeed insultingly small, amount of money.

But as usual, the subject is more complicated than that.

Another story is in order. Early in my stay here, I was with little Maria at El Pegaso with two other people. A party of four. You will recall that Maria is originally from Columbia. Her permanent residence now, as well as her mother's, is in México City. She was working temporarily in Terresa's permaculture operation out there to learn about organic gardening, self-sustaining living environments, and that sort of hippie stuff. Nonetheless, Maria is a big city girl (only a well-to-do city girl would wear gloves for manual labor in México) and very, very bright.

When it came time to pay the bill, I volunteered to pay the whole tab. Not a peep of protest was heard by the way. From across the table Maria watched me fumble around with the money. I calculated a tip in excess of 20% and set it out there with the principal amount. Of course, I was utterly charmed by the job the waiter had done.

Maria went haywire. She asked me what I was doing. She said something very interesting but which I cannot quote exactly. She said words to the effect of, “That man is not a beggar!” She was referring to the waiter of course. She herself took charge of the money, rearranged it, and returned to me an amount sufficient to reduce the tip below 15%.

Now at the time, I took her to be expressing a concern about me, about my wallet. I also thought she was saying in effect that the waiter did not need that big a tip. Are you with me here?

But since then and after more experience, I now interpret her meaning then far differently. I am very close to certain about this.

When she said, roughly, “That man is not a beggar,” she was telling me that by over tipping him I was in some way showing a kind of disrespect for him, a professional man of pride. I was going to insult him and his professionalism by over tipping him. By over tipping him I was telling him that he had done something that night that he ordinarily did not do when in fact Cesar renders great service each and every time out of the blocks.

Hell, she did not care about my wallet. Maria was always under the impression that I was this eccentric American with all the money that God had ever created. I did not tell her that exactly. I do not know how she got that impression.

Consider then that this took place in a country wherein bribes are commonly solicited and commonly given. I myself have been solicited and gave a significant bribe, as most of you already know. Moreover, there is not a helluva lot of hypocrisy about that. People are open about asking the bribe, and the people paying know exactly what they are paying.

In Central America and México we do use a word for “bribe” that is at first blush a euphemism. The word is mordida. Literally, it means “bite.” But hereabouts “bite” has become its secondary meaning. Its primary meaning now is “bribe.” See what I mean? In other words by using the word mordida instead of the Spanish word for “bribe,” that is, soborno, people are not in any way being delicate about the subject here.

So here I am in the land of bribes being gently berated by a young Hispanic woman for showing disrespect to a waiter who had done an excellent job by over tipping him! Can any of you figure that out?

The only thing I can come up with is that if you are asked for a bribe, start bargaining about the amount, and then give it. On the other hand, if you are not asked, certainly do not overpay for anything. That is as close as I can come.

See what I mean about how everything is complicated? Nothing is simple?

It certainly is quite possible that Maria was only saying, “You look like a dumb shit gringo putting out that kind of money, and it is embarrassing.”

In fact, now that I have gone to all the trouble of writing this, I have changed my mind. I think that is exactly what she was saying. I have been known at times not only to over tip, but also to over think things.

Any way I cut it in my own head, however, I never over tip here anymore.


Bloggerboy FFM said...

Thanks for those two posts Don Steve! Excellent. I was deadly serious about my two questions, because they allow a revealing peek into a society's norms and how they change over time. I'll reciprocate with a couple of posts on the same topics.

27thstreet said...

It seems to me that the advice simply says this is what you do here and doing otherwise highlights the already obvious fact that you are an outsider.

Señor Steve said...

I look forward to it, Bloggerboy.

You are right on, mr. anchovy. I am constitutionally incapable of saying things that succinctly.

My own lawyer and close friend, Hugo, just sent me an email, which in part included this:

I liked your blog on tipping in Mexico. When we were down there, we were certainly “dumb ass” gringos. . .to the extent one guy refunded a part of my tip…voluntarily and insisted.

When was the last time any of y'all had part of a tip refunded by a waiter?