That’s only half the story. That’s what I know; what I’ve seen with my own eyes. But I digress. Blacks don’t tip. That’s what we are told by those who care to let us know such things. That’s the other half of the story.
If the “Blacks don’t tip” myth were true, this would make blacks the most ungrateful restaurant guests. Because to tip is not only to help pay a waiter’s salary, but to show appreciation for a service that, when it’s well delivered, turns a meal into a moment of culture. After all, one legend has it that the tradition of the tip comes from the habit gentlemen had of tipping their hat as a gesture of good will.
Given the amount of ubuntu that’s stuffed into their hearts from the day they are born, it is impossible to imagine South African blacks suddenly holding back on their legendary generosity just because they are in a restaurant. Why would they? This is what makes the origins of this myth such a mystery. It is true that when segregated dining came to an end in the early ’90s, relations between black diners and waiters were sometimes frosty as they sized each other up. But the reality of a rapidly growing black customer base soon displaced any mutual suspicions and the restaurant business has never been the same since.
What is remarkable about the “Blacks don’t tip” claim is that it has been around for so long, yet it is uttered when you least expect it. And each time I hear it, it cuts like a knife, slicing cruelly through one’s sense of what’s right. I have known some blacks to go beyond the customary 10% and up to a 20% tip as their way of demonstrating that they – we – do tip. Of course, this is a ridiculous way of dealing with what is a largely ridiculous claim, but then human beings are known to throw logic down the tube when it comes to stereotypes.
I have sat in on heated debates on this very topic and seen just how poisonous it is, quickly souring even the sweetest afternoon among friends. Like all urban legends, it inspires those taking part in the debate to take starkly opposite positions.
Often sandwiched in between is a less animated group trying to give reasons why they shouldn’t tip in the first place. Passionate as the arguers may be, I am always aware of just how painfully futile the whole thing is.
Let me pose a question to those who buy the stereotype. If blacks indeed do not tip, why are they received with such obvious warmth in the restaurants they continue to visit in such large numbers? There is no doubt there would be consequences for breaking one of the most sacrosanct customs of eating out. Would they not be shunted to the very worst tables at restaurants – the tables no one wants – and would the waiters not serve them with a coldness that would spoil their dining experience? This is where you see the cracks start to appear in this half-baked story.
So it seems fairly obvious that the notion that “Blacks don’t tip” is based on nothing but pure baloney, but like so much that is social baloney, it tends to stick to the innocent and the guilty alike. I have sometimes wondered, when the waiters give my table a wide berth, whether they think I belong in the circle of those that don’t tip. But I’ve learnt not to allow such stereotypes to hold me back in my own life, and so I always put it down to the fact that some waiters actually do not like their jobs.
Of course, these are the waiters who serve you with a long face, and every one of their gestures tells you just how much hard work it is to serve you. To me these are the waiters who do not deserve any tip at all because they inspire no goodwill.
Even when you lift your hand in a desperate attempt to attract their attention, they will find a way to somehow not see you, until one of their colleagues rushes to your table. But come the time to settle the bill, they suddenly remember that they are serving your table and reappear as if by magic.
Fortunately, restaurants are also full of fine waiters, men and women who truly love their jobs. It often seems it is as much for them as for the food that we return to our favourite spots. These are the waiters who walk towards your table with a smile that can melt a frozen heart. In that instant all is forgotten as you turn your attention to the fine art of dining.
Granted, South Africa has plenty of stingy scumbags who want to eat out all the time and leave an insult on the table rather than a proper tip. I have watched in disbelief as these specimens have washed down a fine meal with choice champagne, only to leave a tip that is a mere token. It is interesting to watch the reaction of the waiter when, after throwing in his best service, the diner throws at him what amounts to a bit of loose change.
But it would be scandalous to suggest that one group has a monopoly on the supply of stinginess, as it were. Those who are ungenerous in their thinking are often just as ungenerous in their actions. The mean of mind and wallet come in all shapes and sizes – so next time someone comes to you and starts repeating this most stubborn of stereotypes, give them the opportunity to prove themselves exempt from the problem and ask them to pick up the tab.
Dlamini is a writer, critic, traveller and portrait photographer. He also has a day job, sort of. His portraits of writers have been published in many top literary publications, but he mostly makes his living as Chairman of the Chillibush Group of Companies, which deals in the dark arts of advertising, public relations and event management. In 2007 Dlamini was the recipient of the South African Literary Awards' Literary Journalism prize. He regularly reviews books, especially from Southern Africa, and presents the The Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast. Recent columns: