A Hidden Tax on Foreigners

This is a pet peeve of mine and I am going to rant against it. Please bear with me. I hate tipping. I cannot even begin to tell you how much I hate it. My dislike, however, is not due to stinginess or me being a miser. I hate tipping because too often it becomes a hidden tax on foreigners.

I don’t have anything against people that can expect to be tipped in an almost universal way: bellboys, waiters, and similar others. And I do believe in fair and even generous tipping to people; because people that expect to be tipped in their local business system usually do a very hard work to please you. Besides this, however, there are some very annoying circumstances in the world of tipping:

1. First of all, the kinds of people that expect to be tipped varies from country to country. In some countries you tip the pizza delivery boy; in others, you tip the cab driver. And in others, you tip the barber. If you are new to the place, how in the earth can you tell someone is to be tipped? Tough life, man.

2. Second, there is no sign that says “I should be tipped. Feel free to add x% to the amount of the transaction” with those people. Thus, they quote you a price, you pay it, and you feel that that’s the end of it… But no. And if you walk out right away thinking you have done what was expected of you, you will appear to those people as a jerk.

3. Third, when “tippable” people do not receive a tip, they try to communicate that fact to you by every indirect mean. They will use glances, gestures, double-entendres, whatever… everything but the straight talk that says “Sir, I am sorry if you are not aware of this, but I expect to be tipped.” I am a male human being, naturally resistant to double-entendres and side glances, and it seems that I also belong to some strain that is even more resistant than others (just ask my wife ;-)), and I resent that such an important fact should be communicated in such an indirect way. Ask and ye shall receive!

So, the gist of the matter is this: when you are a newcomer to some place, you are bound to trip into this hidden barrier. You are guaranteed to step on someone’s toes because in some way or another you will not tip to anyone who is expecting it according to local customs. You, as a foreigner, must pay a hidden tax: appear as a jerk and then make the necessary efforts to repair the misunderstanding.

How could we fix this?


  1. Well, let’s start off by being as clear as possible about what it is we want to fix. A tax is levied by, and paid to, some level of government. You’ve called this a hidden tax, but you’ve not indentified the taxing authority. A private citizen, with whom you are engaged in an exchange of money for services rendered, is not a taxing authority. That’s not a solution, of course. But an immediate fix does come to mind. Try being as explicit as you would like tippable people to be: ask. But in the U.S., a general rule of thumb would be that people who engage in what used to be called “personal servant” type work are tippable: taxi cab drivers (they drive your body around, for this reason this rule sometimes applies to bus drivers and airplane pilots, especially when they are chartered.); waiters/waitresses (they serve our food): hotel bell-boy (carries your luggage); golf caddie (like a bell boy); massage therapists, hair stylists (literal “personal servants). I have found this general rule of thumb works very well also in Mexico, Canada, Germany, and the U.K. Whatever you may find, however, calling something a “tax” doesn’t make it a tax–any more than calling someone “hermano”–even when he is–makes him your hermano. 🙂

  2. Philologous: Thanks for the comment. It is very insightful. Here is my answer:

    1. You have a very good point on the word “taxation”. However, I still think the usage is appropriate, because even when there is not a government involved in the levy, a society is. If we regard current factual human government as a product of a social contract, then I think it is appropriate to call this a taxation.

    But let’s be clear, and let’s call this a “hidden fee”, instead.

    2. You say:

    Try being as explicit as you would like tippable people to be: ask

    That’s good advice too, and I appreciate it. Problem is, it was covered in #2 of my post. You ask “How much?” to the person, they answer you with a price, and you pay it. But that’s right. I think I should ask more explicitly whether it is customary to pay those people a tip or not.

    3. The rule of thumb you mention is great, and I never ever thought of the issue in that way. I don’t like it, though; after all, for the majority of the examples you mention there I would have appreciated a simple “one price covers all” and not “one price plus this and that and such…”. But you are right and it is certainly illuminating.

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  4. You’re right: we may as well call it a hidden fee, especially since, on the terms you outline, anything you pay to anyone is a tax since the same society involved in the taxation you are talking about is also involved in the exchange of goods between a buyer and a seller. For my own part, as a devotee/disciple of Abraham Kuyper I tend to think in terms of distinct “spheres” in a society. A government remains a “sphere” within a society, not simply an extension of it. Otherwise everytime anyinthing is done in any society that act could be considered an act of the government, including–at the risk of seeming crass–sex acts between husband and wife.

    So, we can agree that “hidden fee” is a better term. But tell me, do waiters/waitresses receive tips in your country?

  5. Philologous: About the waiters question, yes, they do receive tips. I usually tip them 10 to 20% of the invoice value. I refer you to my second paragraph, before #1 on the numbered list.

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