03/02/2012 07:40 am ET | Updated May 02, 2012

Tipping In Libya, The US And Elsewhere

On recent assignment in Libya, my friend Rana came across a problem, a financial problem. The staff in the hotel were extraordinarily helpful, making her life easier and ensuring her safe passage. Rana tried to tip them but was refused every time. This was their job, they said, it was an insult to suggest they needed extra payment. Absolutely no tip was necessary.

Rana lives and works in the Middle East and understands tipping culture very well; sometimes an initial refusal is part of the ritual dance of tipping - the display of reluctance, followed by the insistence and finally the acceptance. But in Libya it was clear -- no need to tip.

Most people are happy to tip. Rana is. I am. Almost everyone I know is. But when confronted with the US system of tipping, I become addled, cross and confused. It's not really tipping is it? As Rana told me, "I believe tipping should be something you do for great service or outstanding work and not an expected thing every time. After all they are meant to be doing their jobs, aren't they?"

But now tipping in the US is far from a voluntary thank you. It's a rigid, non-negotiable expectation; rarely is there any pretense that the level of service dictates the tip. Many people will say that no matter how bad the service, they will "always leave something, but I will leave less just to show my displeasure".

I have no argument with being honest as to why tipping is so ingrained in the US culture. The minimum wage sucks. But it's fixable. Many American industries are defiantly non-union, so there is also no award wage, which unions in many other industrialized countries set to determine fare wage levels. The award wage is often above the legal minimum wage requirement.

Why put up with poverty-level minimum wages? Why expect others to subsidize you if you are are not willing to protest and organize and demand fair wages? Organize and demanded to be paid an appropriate living wage, and stop the extortion that is politely called tipping.

Because last time any of us checked, extortion is a criminal offence, and often the heavy handed approach to prizing a gratuity out of people's wallets resembles a common assault. The gouging and hovering can be obvious at best, odious at worst. "You get 3 interruptions during each course with "Is everything right with your meal?" type of questions from the server, the assistant server and the maître d'," said a friend. "I feel like responding "Why? is there something wrong with the food that I should be looking out for?"

Another dear friend, who I usually love, gave me pause for thought, when he told me that while he was tending bar in Brooklyn, someone gave him a tip he considered "lousy". He flipped a bottle cap at the back of the customers head as he left the premises. "Rude asshole," said my friend about the non-tipper. He was stunned when I expressed disbelief and suggested that physical assault may well be defined as a sackable offence "Oh, my boss agreed it was asshole behaviour too," he said.

Okay, I know I am hitting on a culturally sensitive spot, but boy oh boy do Americans get defensive about their tipping culture. My friend the bottle cap tosser couldn't understand my concern for the bloke who got hit in the back of the head. My unease induced a kind of militant genetic throwback from a guy who in a genuinely good bloke.

I have been snarled at more than once because of my ignorance about tipping (always a good way to get tipped more - swear at the customer). Once, I was chased into Times Square by a furious waitress for not tipping enough for totally non-existent service. I was so naïve I thought she was chasing me because I had left something behind -- a bag or book - but when I turned round she was raging at me in the middle of the street and demanding more money from me. I was so shocked I paid up. This is not tipping, this is extortion.

An aside: I once left a tip in Australia and was chased down the street by the waitress who thought I had left money behind on the table by mistake.

So let's find a new word for tipping in the US, because tipping it ain't. Tipping is what Rana was trying to do in Libya. In the US it's about the minimum wage. And societal imbalance. And subsidies for lack of action on behalf of people who have the right to be paid above the poverty line. But it sure ain't tipping.