On Tipping and Haggling
At home, bargaining is not unheard of. You might try to negotiate a price at a garage sale or similar, and it’s quite normal for larger purchases (furniture, car, house, business deal). But most of the time, if you are buying a snack or a shirt or a pair of sunglasses, the price is as marked, and if you try to haggle people will just think you’re weird. I prefer this system because it makes all of those small transactions quick and unambiguous.
By contrast, tipping is quite normal in Canada, if not quite so endemic as in the US. That doesn’t make it right — I really dislike tipping as a practice. Too often, I find myself declining help carting luggage in a hotel because I have no small bills for a tip and don’t want to be thought of as cheap, even though I would actually quite like help. Or, equally, bizarrely resenting someone who carries bags I could have easily managed myself, because now I need to hand over a dollar. Of course, given the way the system is set up, you have to go along; wages are lower because staff are expected to get tips. But it just seems better to pay people fairly and not have me capriciously determining their income based on how much I choose to spend on a bottle of wine.
From this perspective, travelling in Japan was a dream — no tips, no haggling, everything costs exactly what it says it will. Australia will be great for the same reason. China was also fine; while they do have a bargaining culture, it doesn’t tend to apply to things like hotel rooms, train tickets, and restaurant meals, which is all we really bought in China. The Chinese also don’t tip, and neither do they expect tips.
But Vietnam and Cambodia, however, are something else again. Although the Vietnamese and Khmer people don’t practice tipping themselves, they are well aware that Westerners do. They also assume every transaction is a haggling opportunity: price of a tuk-tuk ride, price of a donut, whatever. If you pay the price they first quote you, you are a sucker.
Now overlay the vast disparity in wealth between me and whichever vendor is peddling their goods or services, and add a slathering of liberal guilt. The other day, a street vendor tried to sell me a donut for 20,000 dong. I laughed and walked away, the price was so outlandish; eventually I agreed to 15,000 dong for two donuts when she chased after me, which is almost certainly more than I ought to have paid. But at the same time, 20,000 dong is less than a dollar. I literally won’t notice the 65 cents one way or another. Meanwhile, many street vendors in Vietnam are from rural areas. They live away from their family for weeks at a time, work 15 hours a day, and take home about $10 a week to augment the meagre earnings of their rice farming so they can feed and educate their children. And I’m haggling over 65 cents?
So it is with tipping. Cambodia is even poorer than Vietnam, and Siem Reap is a tourist town providing various services for Westerners. If I pay $3 for a half hour foot massage (includes a beer! And free wifi!), it seems extravagant to tip $1 — that’s 1/3 the cost of the service. But one dollar is basically inconsequential to me, while it is a significant amount of money for the girl rubbing my feet. I’m not even sure she is paid a wage; she might be working exclusively for tips. It feels churlish to tip her only 50 cents, but there’s still a strong sense that it’s foolish or somehow patronizing to tip her more. And what of the tuk-tuk driver who is out of his bed at 4 am to take us to Angkor Wat? The maid who cleans our room? What’s the right amount?
I don’t know the answers to any of this. My moral intuition says that when the marginal value of a dollar is so much greater to someone else, it is meet and right to give it to them. I also believe that most of the time, direct cash transfers are the most effective means of charitable giving. But there are obviously limits to this thinking. I don’t need one dollar, but if I give away enough of them, I will feel the pinch. Capricious tips or overpayments from westerners are a poor way to effect social justice (not least because those with a tuk-tuk or a sunglasses stall or a job at a restaurant are likely much better off than peasants who I never encounter). There is also a strong natural instinct to bristle at being taken advantage of, or paying a price that is not “fair”.
But, then, fairness is what underlies all of this discomfort, because the basic Rawlsian truth is that it is not fair that some people are born in Cambodia and live on a few dollars a day while others are born in Canada and spend roughly that much per day on coffee. Who am I to hold back a tip because I feel someone with so few opportunities in life “didn’t earn it”?
Oh well. These are not injustices I can rectify, and certainly not with one tip or bargaining capitulation. I suppose I will muddle on, feeling badly when I do haggle and badly when I don’t, and feeling that every tip is both outlandishly high and woefully inadequate.