01/03/2014 10:43 am ET Updated Mar 05, 2014

The Gratuity Gulf

I have a friend with a dark and dreadful secret. I should stress this is a real chum, not one of those "friends" the male species has a penchant for asking embarrassing questions on behalf of. ("Should it be that red?," "Is it normal for there to be blood?," "How much fat is too much fat?" -- I've yet to master the perfect steak). Honest.

As far as secrets go, it makes coming out to your parents as a cross-dresser, your friends as a naturist, or your girlfriend as a bird-watcher seem like a march of pride in the park. If I was forced to choose between confessing so fiendishly sordid a secret or passing kidney stones the size of rubies and as rough as diamonds, I'd have my trousers unzipped and around my ankles in the blink of an eye. It's a habit to be whispered in ushered tones, susurrated with utmost caution. Outwith those furtive modes of broadcast, it should be accompanied with a public service warning: Viewer discretion advised.

So, if you suffer from a nervous disposition or are reading this with an elderly relative, a Dowager Duchess, or a character from a Jane Austen novel, be sure to have a strong smelling salt to hand.

I have a friend who doesn't tip.

Now, I know what you're thinking: Never? Yes, never. Never, ever? Never, ever. Taxi cabs? Not a penny. Surely in restaurants? Nope. Even if the service is great? Not even then. What about those cheery, soulful chaps in nightclub bathrooms? Get outta here! But what about the spray? The lay? Not in a month of Sundays.

Tipping divides countries and cultures. In Japan, leaving a tip on the table after a meal is generally considered the etiquette equivalent of breaking wind in a crowded lift and then getting off on the second floor. Meanwhile, in Albania, you'd cause more offence scraping the change from the maître d's hand than you would eating your Bakllasarëm cross-dressed as Mother Teresa. Probably.

This Berlin wall of tipping exists within the West, too. In the UK, the average restaurant-goer leaves a tip half the size of their U.S.-foodie equivalent. So, why are Brits half as grateful (or demanding) as Americans when it comes to service?

One flavorsome ingredient in the mix is the price of eating out itself. Gastronomical adventure is generally cheaper in the U.S. than the UK, with the average repast in New York being around 20 percent cheaper than in London. Punters not only get more steak for their cents, but have more left in their pockets after the event to generously assign to staff. However, tips from the poorest in both countries don't differ wildly from the average, nor do they increase directly with take-home pay. Not only that, but Brits and Americans generally spend around the same amount eating out each year, suggesting discount dining doesn't fully explain the Atlantic gratuity gulf.

Then there's the wages. The U.S. minimum stands at $7.25 per hour, compared to the UK's $10.31, but even then restaurateurs can pay less so long as the remainder is made up in tips. Around 51 percent of those working in U.S. hospitality are paid at, or lower than, the minimum wage. Some states allow restaurants to pay as little as $2.13 an hour -- the median hourly rate in the UK is $10.64. With such inconceivably trifling wages (oh, look, bit of a pun there), tipping in America isn't just polite, it's essential if those serving the food you are eating are able to afford themselves the same luxury.

But, the tipping culture goes deeper than mere economics. Stereotypically, Americans may be more gluttonous than Brits, but typically you'll find they're more gourmand too. Go to any American city, feast in any of its restaurants, and you'll see it: You'll feel it.

Restaurants anywhere are about more than the aggregate of their menu; the food more than the sum of its ingredients. They're about experiencing a connection between one culture and the next; one country and another. They're the culinary embodiment of Kipling's enjoinment: "And what should they know of England who only England know?" A meal in a restaurant is a three-course holiday, and the sheer variety of cultural cuisines represented in even the most "American" of U..S towns and cities stands as a testament to an outward looking country and an international people (regardless of European sneering).

Service is integral to this story of food. If you're tasting a country you've never been to before, or sampling the flavors of a culture for the very first time, service is the one constant that should never change. Unfortunately, it's all too often the one variable that goes tragically wrong. And it's difficult to love (or hate) a country, culture or cuisine if you're too busy despising the staff.

Opinion on the matter is divided, but in my experience American restaurants just, well, get this. Not only that, but Americans demand it. It takes only two weeks (or a short Christmas vacation) in the UK to realise that it just doesn't and Brits simply don't. And I think that's worth 20 percent alone.