Kate Roff encounters some tricky times navigating the 'tipping' system in North America.

When an alarmed restaurant manager started chasing me down a gritty Detroit street, my mind flitted through the scenarios that could possibly warrant someone racing after me shouting at the top of their lungs "Stop! Ma'am, please stop!" Had I forgotten something? Had I grossly insulted someone? Unknowingly left a trail of destruction in my wake? I couldn't imagine what I could have done that would account for the manager's level of determination to reach me. When he finally caught up to me, puffing from the sprint, he wheezed out: "You didn't tip."

While this circumstance is unusual (waiters won't often give pursuit for the expected donation), it is an indication of how vital a tip is to the people receiving it. Kiwis, and anyone else unaccustomed to the tipping system that rules the hospitality industry in the US, are bound to forget to tip every now and then, but this particular manager was more concerned that the service at his establishment might have been so poor that I had refused to leave the extra gratuity.

Further investigation revealed that wait staff in the US are usually paid only a token amount by their employers, around $2 for showing up, and the rest of their wage is reliant on tips. While the dollars add up (a busy bartender may make $200-$300 a night) this system leads to headaches for managers. Wait staff will jostle for the busy shifts and no one wants to work the "slow nights". It also means it's fickle work, it's an insecure wage for the people in the second largest industry in the US, and staff turnover is high as people jump from new (which translates to popular) place to place. Not to mention that some staff I spoke to revealed they will happily give away free drinks (at the expense of their employer) because, at the end of the day, their pay comes from the customer, not their boss. Even more alarming are the anecdotes that point to power being placed in the higher income earners' court — well-dressed white males are apparently likely to get better service than youths, the elderly, women, and people of colour, as typically lower income earners.

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Tipping is indeed a bizarre system for travellers who didn't grow up with it. The food service industry is reasonably straightforward — a standard 20 per cent tip isn't impossible to calculate at the end of your meal — but the waters start to get a bit murky for other services. What about the dishevelled-looking youths who just washed my car, or my hairdresser? What's customary for that lady lurking in the women's bathroom just waiting to pass me a hand towel? Then you get into the debate about table service, if someone waits on you then sure, you should leave a tip, but what if you pay at the counter?

I've met Aussie counterparts who steadfastly refuse to bow to the social custom. It's not right, they argue, and a server's fee should be included in the cost of the meal. The system is so ingrained however, that screwing over an unfortunate individual is not going to change anything — or for that matter endear North Americans to their friends "Downunder". On the other side of the coin (pun fully intended), some Yankee friends argue that if people are working for tips the service is better, but honestly that's not what I have found. Overall I've discovered the hospitality, especially in mid-west US, to be great, but not 20 per cent better than, say, your regular barista in Auckland. When you do get excellent service Stateside the experience is somewhat diminished by the fact that you are paying for it — it feels like you are paying someone to be nice to you. Which you are.