The Plague Of American Cheapskates

11/22/2011 06:54 am ET | Updated Jan 22, 2012

Quite a few bartenders in Berlin have told me that the worst tippers are American. At first I was incredulous as I've always thought of us as jovial cash-slingers, flirting unabashedly and beaming next to a skateboard-sized schnitzel. I thought maybe they misspoke and that Armenians were the worst tippers, a reputation commensurate with that country's honor of having the second worst economy in the world.

One bartender friend guffawed, dismissing my Jimmy-Stewart derived image of American generosity, and stating quite matter-of-factly that we are her least favorite customers. I defended our altruistic spirit, insisting there must be, like, a coin-powered Jacuzzi in every bar basement, swallowing our money and running only on the residue of American innovation gleaned from our coins. And furthermore, I told her, following up my totally logical defense, "we pay 20% at home, so we're used to paying more." (10% is the normal tipping rate at bars and table-service restaurants in Berlin.)

She didn't budge, and why would she? She worked at a bar in a hip Kiez frequented by a lot of Americans, and she could more clearly judge their tipping habits than I. That led me to think that perhaps there is a myth afoot among Americans that you don't need to tip in Europe. Maybe this fallacy stems from outdated ideas of cross-continental travel, a holdover from the age of steam trunks when tipping was "uncouth" and awkward choreographed group dances were plentiful; when a young heiress thought that tipping was too "forward" and a young bellhop felt that being gallant was more important than his tuberculosis medication.

Confirming my suspicion were American friends who claimed to have read somewhere that tipping in Europe was optional. In part I blame travel guides, probably the ones with double male names like Stan Greg's Guide to Europe on Your Own Two Feet, or Jake Sterling's Thrifty Tour of the Third Reich. Someone, somewhere, is telling Americans that closefisted tipping is tolerated, even celebrated here. I read on several travel websites, that you only have to round up, or tip 5%. One website claimed, "In Germany, you hardly need to tip at all, but if you do..."

German service staff don't retire to a canal-side penthouse and joke together about the proletarian charm of waiting tables. Waiting tables is as hard in Europe as it is in the States, and a lot of bar/restaurant workers in Berlin are students or starving artists earning well below what we would think of in America as minimum wage.

There has been a renewed discussion here lately about establishing a Mindestlohn or minimum wage, because Germany doesn't have one as of yet, but I won't go into how surprising and disappointing it is that there is no minimum wage in a country generally so concerned with quality of life and fiscal accountability.

So ok, tipping standards are different in different European countries, Italy often includes gratuity etc. but in Germany you normally tip around 10%. It's not required by law, I mean someone won't take you to beer jail, but it's a good idea to round up, be sensible and know that leaving no tip is the exception, not the norm.