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4 Things About Canada's Tipping Culture That Totally Took Me By Surprise As A Newcomer

Not all countries tip like the Great White North!

Trending Associate Editor
Janice Rodrigues in Canada. Right: Janice holding a Tim Hortons coffee.

Janice Rodrigues in Canada. Right: Janice holding a Tim Hortons coffee.

This Opinion article is part of a Narcity Media series. The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Narcity Media.

There are a lot of culture shock moments that come when you're moving to a new country, and this definitely holds true for Canada as well.

While there are quite a few things that took me by surprise when I moved from Dubai to Toronto earlier this year, Canada's tipping culture was one of the biggest things that took time to get used to.

Why? Because, well, not all countries have big tipping cultures like the Great White North.

Where I'm from, tipping is seen less as an expectation and more as an appreciation for particularly impressive service.

That is to say, if I go to a restaurant and the server has been excellent, it would be natural to leave behind a tip. But, at the same time, it's certainly not expected.

The understanding in Dubai is that providing good service is part of a person's job. Sort of like how a banker, accountant or cashier in a store isn't tipped for doing their jobs!

Of course, there are little bits of etiquette people in the UAE also follow. For example, it's considered polite to tip a delivery person, especially one who has driven out on a bike during those sweltering months to deliver your food.

Similarly, tipping a server at a fine dining establishment is pretty common, as the server would introduce themselves and get familiar with their customers.

But even then, you're certainly not expected to leave a gratuity.

Fast forward to moving to Canada, and it's been a whole lot of life lessons. Here are some of the aspects of tipping that took me by surprise:

Some servers actually call you out

Okay, so this happened all of once, and back in 2019 when I visited Toronto for a week. I was dining out with some friends and one of them generously agreed to foot the entire bill.

I'm not sure if the person miscalculated or just wasn't sure (they weren't Canadian), but the server straight-up asked them why the tip wasn't a greater amount.

"Was there something wrong with the service?" she asked, leaving the guest, well... beet-red.

Card machines with higher pre-determined percentages

Since that experience, I'll admit, I've been a little wary of getting my tipping etiquette wrong.

My main concern? That it would require me doing some serious math in my head while the server stares down at me.

Well, honestly, card machines with fixed tip percentages have been a relief for me. I genuinely love that they take the stress out of calculating the appropriate amount.

That being said, the percentages are currently on the rise in what some are calling tipflation – sometimes even going up to 30%, which, if you're not used to tipping, can feel like a lot.

I know that with the cost of living, it's warranted. But, it also does make me wonder if companies might be expecting higher tips to dodge the responsibility of paying their staff a better wage.

Tipping at cash counters – still just awkward

The first time I ordered a canned drink at a counter – only to be handed a card machine asking for a tip – I was really surprised. That's definitely the first time I've seen this system in all the countries I've travelled to.

Because, again, where I'm from, tipping is done for good service and as a means of appreciation, and when you're waiting in line, placing an order and grabbing a pre-prepared item, that doesn't seem to apply.

It would make sense if you had an excellent chat with an attentive server who helped you decide what you were going to order but, as in most cases, you don't quite have that time when there's a whole line behind you.

In the spirit of this being part of Canada's tipping culture – and an attempt to help servers who might be earning minimum wage – I'm all for it.

But, I also found it interesting that, according to an etiquette specialist, "you don’t have to leave anything" in these circumstances and "it's more of a means to give recognition if something is done well."

Even then, putting a 0% tip at the counter – in full view of the server – just feels rude.

Tips for non-food-related things 

In the UAE, tipping in other industries, such as in transport or beauty salons, is even less prevalent than it is in the food service sector.

I was so wary about getting it wrong when I moved to Canada that I even found myself Googling how much to tip my driver for my journey from the airport! Since then, I've just embraced the tradition.

Regarding how much to tip, an etiquette specialist told Narcity that it's not always a fixed formula but a little more complicated.

So when in doubt, always ask about the expected tip amount.

And if you're ever faced with the conundrum – to tip or not to tip – just play it safe and tip!

    Janice Rodrigues
    Trending Associate Editor
    Janice Rodrigues is an Associate Editor for Narcity Canada’s Trending Desk focused on Canadian immigration and passports, and is based in Scarborough, Ontario.
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