Tipping Really Isn't A City In China

Jim Fallows recently wrote about what strikes him most forcefully as he re-enters U.S. life after spending three years in China. The shuttle driver on the way in from the Aspen airport made clear that he expected a tip in a particularly blatant way--reminding Jim that in China tipping is so unusual as to be even insulting. Maybe, he thought, there's really no advantage to tipping cultures:

They just end up delivering the money in a way that is more demeaning all around. The driver can't have enjoyed this exercise. I know I didn't. Please! Just add the money to the fare--or the restaurant check or the hotel bill--rather than having all of commercial life colored by the haggling / hostile-servile on one end / guilty-paternalistic on the other end institution of the tip.

As it happens, I'd just been discussing this with my own shuttle driver, after Atlantic Media's Ron Brownstein and his wife, Eileen, were lured from his van by a driver sent by the hotel where they were headed--a hotel right across the street from the one where I was headed. The driver said that what his colleague done was illegal by the airport standards: one driver is not allowed to solicit, or even speak to, passengers in another vehicle. What was more, my driver wasn't supposed to have touched my bags: only airport workers are supposed to load bags into taxis and shuttles. But there were none in view, because no one enforces either rule. Two more workers expected to derive a good portion of their income from tips!

It was all enough to make me get behind the China system, as the whole business of tipping in coffee shops let alone restaurants is fairly recent and fairly vexing. It has been explored in many places, most recently a thoughtful article by Paul Wachter, and has been the subject of lawsuits in which managers haven't properly distributed pooled tips. The current system doesn't seem to please anybody, so consider this an invitation to submit solutions.

The airport union snafu reminded me of something I'd heard at this year's Fancy Food show, helpful news in this case and also a reminder of how different our culture is from China's. It was from Paula Lambert, founder of the Mozzarella Company and a longtime board member of the organizing association, NASFT. I'd asked her, as I did the other food producers I've known for a while, how they were doing in the downturn.

"We voted to release money from our reserves in I think February to help our members come to the show." This amounted to a 50 percent subsidy for what she said was the exhibitors' greatest expense by far: union drayage fees to transport from the loading dock to the Javits Center exhibition floor the contents of the crates the members send: display units, mozzarella-stick fryers, coffee makers, tea brewers, heat 'n' serve ovens, decorated mini refrigerators, panino griddles, etc., to keep and prepare all those samples being handed out. "And we have scanners!" she said delightedly, as she snatched my ID badge from its plastic envelope and scanned the bar code, ensuring I'll receive emails and publicity materials for life.

I'm not sure China offers comparable trade-union help or protections, though I think I know the answer. But I think I'm ready to change over to Chinese tipping culture, at least outside restaurants. You?