Against the flood of Chinese imports, the USA may have a new export when the 2008 Beijing Olympics gets underway: the American way of tipping.
In China, some tipping already occurs at big-city hotels, but it "will still be a novelty" when the Olympics begin next August, says P.M. Forni, author of the 2002 book Choosing Civility: The 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct.
China is just one of several countries where tips had been uncommon but where an increasing number of service workers are expecting them.
Americans routinely tip while abroad, and that, according to Forni and other experts, is driving the trend. And, as practices change, many business travelers are finding it all very baffling. Forni calls tipping abroad "a territory fraught with awkward moments."
Business travelers' confusion is understandable, says Lynn Staneff who compiled a tipping guide for 70 countries for Magellan's, which sells travel supplies from two California stores and a website. Tipping is common in some countries, not done in others, or only done in some cities, she says. Whom to tip varies by country.
"I have absolutely no idea what to tip outside the USA," says professional speaker Sue Hershkowitz-Coore, of Scottsdale, Ariz.
Tipping practices are "in a constant state of change, so what was appropriate the last time you visited a foreign destination may be inappropriate the next time you go," Staneff says.
According to her guide, tipping is not practiced in 11 countries — Brunei, Malaysia, Japan, Oman, New Zealand, Samoa, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, United Arab Emirates and Vietnam. In most countries, travelers are expected to tip to a waiter or waitress 10%, pay the equivalent of $1 per bag to a porter and round the taxi fare to the next unit of the local currency.
Many countries in Asia and Western Europe add a service charge to a restaurant check, exempting diners from tipping, Forni, the author, says. In Japan, Staneff says, tipping is perceived as insulting.
Business traveler Hershkowitz-Coore gets around her confusion by tipping 20% everywhere — "exactly as I would here, unless the bill states that service is included."
She says she's had people tell her a tip was unnecessary. "But when I tell them that I understand and would like to thank them, no one has turned it down."
Frequent business traveler Robert Grimes, who is the chairman of a consulting company, says he angered a taxi driver in the United Kingdom when he rounded off the fare to the next pound.
The cabbie thought the tip was too small and threw coins out the window at him. Though tipping is not generally practiced in Thailand, Grimes says this month a taxi driver in Bangkok seemed insulted that he wanted change.
The best way to avoid insulting or embarrassing a service worker is to ask a hotel concierge about local tipping customs when checking in abroad, Forni and Staneff say. If no concierge is available, it's OK to tactfully, and graciously, ask the worker or the head of the service whether tipping is acceptable.