The subject of tipping in Portugal was brought up in one of the expat groups and it raised a lengthy and rather contentious discussion. People from the US tend to over-tip—we are accustomed to tipping a minimum of 15% and usually 20%, sometimes more. That’s because there’s a separate minimum wage for tipped workers, a system put into play specifically to pay minorities and women a lower wage.
In Portugal, service workers are paid a decent wage, minimum or better. They get sick leave and paid holidays. They don’t depend on their tips for their livelihood. But they’re obviously not at the top of the pay scale, either. Most people leave the change from their bill and/or an additional Euro or two. Tipping 15% or 20% is seen as excessive. Five to 10% is seen as a reasonable tip. However, the idea that tipping in Portugal is not done or offensive is not true.
The Ugly American?
The discussion included statements saying Portuguese workers found tipping “offensive” and that tipping reeked of colonialism and patronization. “Conspicuous magnanimity” was a particularly interesting comment and a nice turn of phrase. I get that—there are some tippers who are all about the flash of being magnanimous. Some people mentioned that US tippers make everyone else look bad (“Portuguese aren’t able to tip at the same levels”).
I am guilty of over-tipping, particularly at the bakery/café next door. I pick up a croissant every morning for a Euro and I tip whatever coin I have—usually another Euro or a 50 cent piece. That’s a hefty tip on a one Euro item, by Portuguese or US standards. I understand that. But I also see them working 12 hour days. They greet me every day. They help me with my limited Portuguese. They are the friendly familiar faces that make me feel at home. So I don’t tip them for the croissant; I tip them for the whole of what they do day in and day out. That’s their job, I know. But I appreciate it. My coin goes into a tip jar by the register. They may or may not know how much it is. Hell, for the first month or so, I didn’t know how much it was.
The “problem” with the US habit of tipping (and as many see it, over-tipping) is that it escalates the tipping wars. Expats, Americans in particular, tend to tip more than others because that’s what we are used to. Some pointed out that this causes disparity; that Americans may be afforded better service or faster seating or who knows what. One person pointed out that because Americans generally spend more as well as tip, dive charter operators in Indonesia were more accommodating and were more likely to break environmental laws to please their passengers. Has it happened? I’m sure it has—in every country. We used to see it in the Baja whale lagoons where people wanted to get up close and personal with whales. By law, you had to let the whales come to you. We saw many local pangas zooming around to give their passengers a closer look. The “don’t over-tip” people have a point.
Just as “California money” has escalated housing prices in neighboring states as Californians move away, expat money is having an effect on housing prices, at least in the larger towns. The average salary in Portugal is around €1,200 per month (just under $1,400) and Portuguese are being priced out of their own cities. Is this caused by expat money or is it the result of the global housing market being, as one Bloomberg article put it, “broken.” Housing prices and rents are skyrocketing in many cities, not just in the US. There’s been a 90% increase in the average price of an apartment in Seoul, Korea in the past five years. (I doubt that enough Americans are flocking to Seoul to affect their housing market.) Berlin mayor Michael Mueller pointed out that entire sections of society are being priced out of housing in cities such as London, Paris, Rome, and Berlin. Add Lisbon to that list. Expats can’t be solely responsible for this. I know that as an American, I pay more for my apartment than my landlord would have charged a local. Then again, he may not have been able to afford to charge much less than what he is charging me. Is it better for me to pay more to my local landlord or for my landlord to lose money by charging a lower rent? I don’t know.
So, is tipping in Portugal offensive? Does it go against local customs?
Native Portuguese, most of whom worked in service industries, responded that they were definitely not offended by tipping and usually appreciated the gesture. Other Portuguese citizens said that we should observe the customs of the country and limit the amount of the tip. (I am assuming that these were not people who worked in service industries, but I could just be being snarky.) A native Portuguese who works in the tourism industry not so subtly pointed out that expats were eager to embrace customs that saved them money, but didn’t bother to learn the language or participate in other customs. I believe the word cheap came up more than once. I wholeheartedly agree with him.
I also have had the opportunity to talk several times with one of the servers who is no longer at the bakery. She loved working there for the most part. She still stops in every so often to say hi and pick up a treat. But she left because she wasn’t making enough money. On top of that, some people were rude and hassled her. She specifically mentioned that people would sit for hours over a €1 cup of coffee, not tipping, which was understandable, but tying up the table so there was limited turnover. Lingering over coffee is practically a civil right in Europe. That’s fine in the off-season, but in the Algarve, restaurants, hotels, and cafés make their money in the summer months. Tourists and locals walking by look for an open table, see none, and move on to the next place.
You Can’t Have It Both Ways
It seems that some expats are more than willing to take advantage of Portuguese systems and customs that save them a few or more than a few Euros. All too often I see expats and soon to be expats post, asking for scammy ways to beat fees, get around the rules, avoid paying their fair share, and to generally squeeze blood out of every last Euro. Many expats (not just Americans) are delighted to take advantage of the Portuguese health system, even though they have never paid into the system. They’re chasing that mythical four course meal for two with a bottle of excellent local wine for €12. Or they complain about a €7 monthly bank fee as if they are going to go hungry because of it. (OMG! No free checking? Barbaric!)
Appreciation is Always Appreciated
I worked on cruise ships, both US and foreign flagged. While officers and cruise staff were paid well, the majority of crew members were not. On foreign flagged ships in particular, the pay was under $5 per day for servers, stewards, and other tipped workers. Cruise ship workers tend to over-tip. People who have worked in restaurants over-tip. It’s because we know how hard service people work and what they have to put up with day in and day out. Is the culture different in Portugal? Yes. Is tipping “less of a thing” here? Yes. But as one native Portuguese person put it, no one is actually offended with a little extra money to help cover the bills.
I have seen over-tipping used to try to control people, whether it is the hope of getting sexual favors from the pretty cocktail waitress (Clue: she’s a waitress, not a prostitute), or to prove what a “great guy” you are, as if a large tip can make up for treating someone like shit. I have seen tipping used to compensate for insecurity or maybe even privilege-guilt. Tipping to control is offensive. It doesn’t matter what country you are in.
Most US expats aren’t trying to start culture wars or insult anyone when they tip 15-20%. We are a product of our conditioning. It is physically uncomfortable for most of us to not leave a tip or leave a small tip. More so, if we’ve worked in the industry. It’s also uncomfortable learning the ways of a new country. That’s part of the deal. Most of us will adjust quietly as we learn.
A tip, done right, is an expression of appreciation. As with most things, it is the intention behind the gesture. A tip accompanied by words of sincere appreciation will not be offensive. So yes, you do tip in Portugal. Not as much as in the States. But the overall impression I have taken from this discussion is that treating people with respect and being polite go a lot further than an extra 10% in the tip. Or as Mom said, “Good manners are welcome everywhere.”