June 26, 2014

How Much is Enough: Expat Tips on Tipping

One of the first things you always have to learn in a new country is how much to tip.

This is especially true in South Africa. You'll be setting out on your very first errand to buy milk and butter at the Woolworth's around the corner, you'll return to your car with your bags, and as you pull out of your parking space, a guy will materialize at your window with an outstretched hand. What on Earth does he expect?

I've written about the economic calculations for someone working this job in Johannesburg in The Parking Gods, so I won't get into the details again here. But I would like to say this:

No matter how much you give, it's never enough.

I was reminded of this in a book I just started reading. It's called Absolution by Patrick Flanery and I won't review it here, although just 20 pages in I can tell you that I am keenly looking forward to the rest of it as an intriguing peek into South Africa's apartheid past.

In the first chapter, a South African recently returned from a long stint abroad asks his friend how much he should be tipping the car guard.

"It can never be too much because they need it more than you," says his friend. "And if you're a tourist," he goes on to say, "you owe them a little more."

This gave me pause to think. Are expats tourists or not? Of course we like to think that we aren't. That we are so adventurous and culturally sensitive that we quickly adapt to local customs, that we actually live there versus just visiting, that we know so much more about the country.

But in many ways, we are just tourists. Granted, ones that stay about three years versus three weeks, but always with an option to go back where we came from (and also often with a salary paid from abroad).

The character in Absolution then asks his friend, the local, how much he gives. This is where it really gets you thinking. "I give less than I expect you to give because I give every day and haven been giving for years." He then goes on to list all the ways he contributes - to the nanny, to the gardener, to the cleaning lady, not just in terms of wages but by helping put their kids through school, buying school uniforms, paying for medical aid... The list is long. Because of all this giving, so the argument, he gives less to the car guards than a tourist should.

So if you find yourself an expat in South Africa, do give this some thought.

You probably won't be there when your domestic eventually retires and needs someone to help her build a house, as most of my South African friends have done or will do at some point in their lives.

You won't be there long enough to pass on your old car to your domestic's husband, greatly increasing his fortunes because now he doesn't have to give up 40% of his earnings for transport.

You may not be there when your gardener's son is killed in a stabbing and there is no money for the funeral, a big affair in an African township.

You won't be there for a lot of things, so while you are there, give often and give generously.

Whatever we paid and gave our domestic, I'm sure it was
never enough. Sadly I've lost touch with her.

P.S.: I'm sorry if you expected more in terms of actual tips on tipping, as promised in the title of this post. I sort of hijacked the topic for an excursion into social justice, especially since the parking guards became dear to me during our South African years. And frankly, in all other areas of tipping the custom is very much similar to the U.S. - 15-20% in restaurants, and tips for hairdressers (especially the "tea ladies" who will also give you a heavenly head and/or hand massage!) and bellboys and valet parking and such. 

Plus of course you could always find yourself with a flat tire when invariably someone will materialize and change it for you

You should generously tip that person too.