Thursday, 17 July 2008

The etiquette of Tipping — in the Land of Smiles


In Australia tipping is a rarity. There is, in this globalized capitalistic world, still a simple Australian aphorism—which runs counter to the ethos of tipping—that a fair days work should be rewarded by a fair days salaryhas lead to the belief in Australia that one’s salary should provide a fair income, sufficient to fund one’s way in the world. In day’s gone past Australia even had the notion, applied via government regulation, that there was such a thing as a ‘basic wage’, but that is a story for another day.


The rare beast of Australian tipping is in turn rare in the external world. In the western world tipping is a common practice, and something travelers need to be aware of in order to avoid potential problems. In the 3rd world, such as Thailand, thing are even more complicated, where there is the added complication of the relative disparity in incomes and social expectations between the western guest and the local Thai.


To understand this important practice lets start with some background on Thailand. A reasonable salary for a Thai in Bangkok is 200 baht (200b/au$7) a day. This is not big money, rather it is a low salary, but it is enough to live on, sufficient to provide food and accommodation (by way of example, a room in Bangkok can be 3000–5000 baht a month). By Australian standards Thai living is inexpensive.


Another aspect of background is the expectation that a tip will be given. Many businesses pay their staff a low salary (e.g. 3000b a month) in the expectation that their staff will increment their salary via tips. Also, Thailand is a country with a strong aristocratic/feudal tradition, the rich are expected to give to the poor. The flip side to the feudal thing is that the rich are expected to say ‘No’.


My general approach to tipping is this, in venues where it is called for I give a tip of 20b (au60c) for competent service. If the total payment is small I may leave only a 10b tip. Usually, unless the purchase is exceptionally large, 20b is all I pay. Sometimes this means leaving only the loose change as a tip. To put this gratuity into perspective lets remember that 20b can represent the equivalent of 1/2–1 hour of salary (a young person’s starting salary is frequently 20b).


Hotels are an interesting question, how much, and who should receive your tip? I have reached what I think is an easy and effective solution to this puzzle. Each day I let my loose change accumulate (usually inside a spare glass) in my hotel room. If I am in need of ‘small money’ for any service I can quickly and easily find it without bother, however, its true worth comes into play at the end of my stay in the hotel. The accumulated and unspent small money becomes my tip to the staff. This is supplemented (or not) with additional funds if the situation warrants.


Another challenge for the new traveller is the local ‘Asian’ market. This is found in every city, town and village. Locals setup a stall, or simply place a blanket or sheet on the ground, and sell their wares. It is the pinnacle of the perfect capitalistic market. Here one’s negotiating skills are always called into play, however, let me stress, there is nothing mysterious or intrinsically difficult. A little bit of study, a little bit of thought, and you will be an effective participant in the ongoing game of monetary exchange—and have a little bit of fun.


At markets I have developed this approach. I negotiate what I think is a good price, and then when I pay the agreed upon price I include a tip, or even the originally asked price—if this is not excessive. For example, at a market in Surin, Thailand, I was offered a necklace for 300 baht. As part of my negotiating technique I have come to find that simply keeping one’s mouth shut is a wonderful tool. Remaining silent, after and while demonstrating interest, prompts the vendor to attempt to find a price, and the first person to cave is the person who tends to get the worst price.


At this particular market I found a necklace which I thought would be a suitable gift. After assessing the merits of this piece of jewelry and after being told the asking price I remained silent, staring at the necklace lying in my hand. After a few moments the offered price dropped to 250 baht. I then countered with an offer of 200 baht. After a few moments of humming and harring this offer was accepted. Then, after the goods had been packed and handed over, I gave 250 baht as the price of the necklace. This was met with joyous surprise, it prompted a big smile, and the conversational information that this was the first sale the woman had made that day.


In this way, by negotiating efficiently and achieving a good price, but also demonstrating a kindness to the vendor, someone from a considerably lower soci-economic background, one gets the goods at a low price, and generates a small amount of good will.


The flip-side to this is the farang idiot, who pays way too much for what they buy. Thai society is a bargaining society, people negotiate far more so than they do in Australia (however, to put the matter into perspective, bargaining and negotiating does go on in Australia, but more so at the business to business level. Private individuals do not negotiate over price a great deal—possibly to their detriment). In a bargaining society paying too much does not win respect, the opposite is true. By negotiating a good price you demonstrate competency and intelligence, by giving a fair and generous tip you demonstrate ‘jai-dee’—a good heart.


One thing not to do in Thailand (and in SE Asia, and, in fact, everywhere) is not too lose your temper. In Thailand ‘politeness’ is a primary virtue, instilled into the young at an early age. This ‘politeness’ is, in one sense, counterproductive and artificial, however, within the context of this discussion it is highly important. If asked a ridiculous price do not do what I have seen done, do not shout ‘TOO MUCH’ or something similar and walk away. Play the game. Smile, laugh, and reply ‘no, no, too much’, shake one’s head, cast your head down, and smile, and counter offer. Remember, it is not personal, the seller will try and get the best price they can, be it a farang, another Asian or a Thai. Caveat emptor is the watch word. Stay frosty.


A prime example of the Thai attitude towards money, bargaining, and the gullible is the Bangkok international airport. A ride into the city from the airport in a taxi is about 300b, give or take, however, a ‘new chum’, ‘fresh of the plane’, ‘first time in Thailand’, will be met with statement from a taxi driver ‘meter not work, 800b to Bangkok’. Let me advise you, the meter works, the driver is trying to make a few extra baht. Do your homework and do not over pay, however, do not get upset, do not scream and shout—smile back at the driver, even give a small chuckle and say ‘too much, too much’. If the driver refers to you as a friend, reply ‘we friends, we friends, too much, my friend’. Again, to put this question of taxi drivers and fares into context, the average taxi driver leases his car on a daily basis for something like 800b, plus he pays for his petrol and incidentals. To make a living he has to make the equivalent of three trips from the airport before he takes any money home. Many drivers work three or four days on, sleep in their taxi, wake when they have a fare, be it what ever time of day or night. So, after negotiating a fair fare for your taxi ride, or simply paying the metered price, give a tip. Do not be extravagant, do not be ‘a big man’ (i.e. idiot with too much money), but give a tip to thank a hard working person for their time and trouble.


One more piece of background information you should be aware off as you negotiate the labyrinth of a foreign culture is the Asian awareness of and importance of ‘face’—the respect one receives from those around them. This is an important aspect of Thai culture (and for that matter western and Australian culture, only westerners are less overt). In Thailand open insults, and name calling, are severely frowned upon, it is a lose of face for all concerned. This is a very annoying feature of Thai culture. In Australia, when there is a problem you expect an apology and a quick fix (but you do not always get it, try talking to Telstra if you do no believe me). In Thailand, if there is a problem or a mistake, to come out and openly admit that a company or an employer has made a mistake is a lose of face. If a farang persistently and loudly insists that a big mistake has been made is to provoke resistance, to continue to complain loudly and to INSIST on instant action is to court blunt refusal. To resolve this issue one should politely and quietly discuss the situation, and wait while the Thai staff sort things out. Usually, after a few back and forward responses a satisfactory resolution can be reached, usually.


To summarize my observations to date I have found there to be three categories of tippers. The first and worst are the big tippers. The guy with money throws it around. Giving waiters 1000b for bringing them their meal, that sort of thing. The waiters (and everyone else) will happily take your money, but they will perceive you to be a fool. The second category is the ‘backpacker’ (a species of traveller sometimes reviled by his more affluent peers, sometimes unjustly), who lives by the credo ‘I can get it cheaper than a local’! I do recall walking along a street in Penang and overhearing a backpacker arguing with a street food seller (and old lady, by the way) over the price of his meal (I believe it was in the au$0.50 price range). Come on! We are living the life in the 3rd world, no need to nickle and dime to that extent. The third category is the one in which I place myself—the smart and caring traveller. Always negotiate a fair price, but expect to pay a little more than a local. Give a noticeable, but foolishly large tip, and smile.


In conclusion, let me say that you stay in the Land of 1,000 Smiles can be enjoyable and rewarding, if you learn and play by a few simple rules. Relax, smile, stay cool, give generously, but not foolishly, and always remember—keep smiling!


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