To Tip Or Not To?

Opinion by Charles Rukuni, The Insider (Harare), 3 April 2001

Harare—Janice McCanty looked like any African woman. Tall, dark, a bit on the heavier side with a disarming smile that exposed two gold teeth, she could have been from any village in Zimbabwe, the Southern African state that has been making headlines for grabbing land from white commercial farmers.

But she was not. She was an African American working as a cleaner at a large hotel in St Petersburg, Florida. I liked her from the first day she greeted me when I arrived in St Petersburg last October to attend a series of seminars over three weeks at the Poynter Institute.

I am not quite sure why I liked her. She was easy to like. But I could also have felt closer to her because of my colour. I was a minority in St Petersburg. There were too many whites. At home, blacks outnumber whites ninety-nine to one.

I changed my mind four days later when I went back to my hotel room at lunch to pick up my laptop computer. I bumped into Janice as she was cleaning the rooms.

Hi, she casually greeted me. I greeted her back, and she asked: Leaving Saturday are you?

No, I replied, I still have two more weeks to go.

Don’t forget about me now, hey?

I knew what she meant. And that put me off. I was furious because I did not want to be asked for a tip by anyone. Where I come from, tipping is voluntary. It is simply a way of thanking someone for providing good service. If I am not happy with the service, tough luck.

I knew tipping was compulsory in the United States. This was my third visit to the country. What irritated me most was why, a person I considered a friend had to remind me to tip her.

I started asking myself: Had she asked me because she felt close to me? Did she ask all the other guests, especially whites? Did she ask me because I was black and as such was not likely to tip her?

This brought back memories of what had happened in 1983 when we drove from Nashville to Memphis as part of group tour which saw me visiting 42 states. I was on a World Press Institute (WPI) fellowship which included two months of study at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota and five months of travelling.

The fellowship was open to mid-career journalists. There were twelve of us: two from Africa, four from Asia, two from Latin America and four from Europe. We arrived at our hotel just after sunset and six of us decided to go and have a meal at a restaurant that was close by. I was the only black in the group. We chose a table for six and sat and waited, but no one came to serve us.

We started joking about how odd it was that waiters just chatted and stared at us, serving those who had arrived after us. When a member of our group asked why we were not being served, he was told that they were not going to serve us because I had been there the previous evening with my brother and had refused to pay a tip. The waiters were therefore not going to serve us unless I left the group or the restaurant.

I was astonished. This was my first night in Memphis and my brother, if I had any, would be at least 21 flying hours away. Another member of our group joked that couldn’t the waiters see that we were a mini United Nations. They were not moved. We had to raise the issue with the supervisor to be served.

As I thought about what Janice had said, I started asking myself: Did she think that as a black person, I had to be reminded that I had to tip her?

I had just bought a copy of the October issue of Black Enterprise on arrival at Atlanta Airport. Max Alert of Tampa, Florida had written: People of colour, please help me reverse our reputation for being poor tippers. If you can’t afford to tip, you can’t afford to go out. Isn’t that right?

Was I being grouped with these people of colour?

I discussed the issue with a member of the faculty at Poynter Institute. I was relieved when she told me she had had similar experience. But I kept asking myself, why had Janice asked for a tip?

Was she even aware that I was an African, from a country which was once the jewel of Africa but had been run down by years of misrule? Was she even aware that though I was a senior journalist, she was probably earning more than I was?

When I first went to the United States in 1983, the Zimbabwe dollar was stronger than the United States dollar. Now seventeen years down the line, the same dollar was worth less than two pennies. Experts say the United States dollar its self has also depreciated. They say the dollar of 1983 is now worth US$1.77.

Over the past four years I had watched my salary slowly being eroded. In 1997 I was earning US$1635 a month. It translated to Z$17 500 then. Four years later my salary had more than trebled to Z$60 000 but this now translated to US$1 090.

I knew Janice was definitely getting more than this but this was probably the least of her worries. But for me, it was hell. I knew I had to tip her. The question was, how much?

If I paid her US$1, it would be too little. But I would never tip anyone Z$55 at home. If I gave her US$5, it might be better, but with Z$275, I could have decent lunch every day for a week at home. Ten dollars was just out of the question. My wife would lynch me for tipping someone $550. At home it wouldn’t even be considered a tip but a bribe.

These questions continued to vex me for the next two weeks as my departure approached. Then on Wednesday, three days before I was to leave, Janice approached me again.

Are you leaving this Saturday? she asked.

Yes, I replied, more as a matter of courtesy. She completely pissed me off now because it appeared that the only thing she could think of was her tip.

I will not be coming this Saturday. I will be taking my son to the airport. He is going to college in Virginia, she said.

All the anger that had built up in me vanished. My whole attitude towards her changed. Yes, I thought to myself, I might be worse off than she was, but I couldn’t help admire her because she was doing something to educate her children.

My first born was doing her final year at high school and was also going to university if she passed. She was attending a very expensive private school but I had sacrificed because I wanted her to have a better life than I had. I felt the same about Janice.

When I left, I put her tip in an envelope. It was US$20, one dollar for every day I had spent at the hotel. It was not much by American standards, but in Zimbabwe it was only Z$400 short of the minimum monthly wage for an industrial worker. But this did not matter any longer. I knew it would be put to good use.