Thursday, July 23, 2009

Norwegian Experience: Tipping in Norway

Since today is a travel day for our Norwegian Experience Recruitment Contest winner, Judy Gray, there isn't much to report from her trip. However, the other day I was speaking with Judy and she asked me if there were any guidelines for tipping while in Norway. She didn't want to be seen as one who throws money around, nor did she want to be considered overly cheap; either way being perceived as "the ugly American". I must admit I wasn't sure what the protocol was for tipping situations, so I went to the best source around for topics like this one and asked our Cultural Advisor, Colin, to weigh in on the matter. Here's what he had to say:

Tipping is one of the most common sources of culture shock for Americans traveling in Norway. Generally speaking, leaving a service gratuity is not expected in Norwegian restaurants, which usually include a service charge in their bills. In some cases, leaving a tip can even be perceived as an insult, as though saying “I know you don’t make enough money, so here’s a little something extra for you.”

You’d think that not having to tip would be a godsend – especially since you’re already paying steep Norwegian prices for everything – but I can’t stand it. In American culture, leaving no tip says that you are extremely dissatisfied with the service you’ve received. I’ve had some pretty awful service experiences, and although I’ve tipped short (10% or less), I’ve only stiffed a waiter once in my entire life. Even though I know better, every time I leave a table in Norway without tipping, I can’t help but feel like I’ve insulted the waiter for no reason.

To make things more confusing, in some circumstances, tipping is acceptable. The book Living in Norway: A Practical Guide (Palamedes Press, 1999) has this to say about the custom:

Restaurants add service charges into bills, so you should tip only if the service has been superior. Most cloakrooms and left-luggage rooms post fixed charges (avgift) for their services, but some do not, so you must ask what is expected. Porters at airports will tell you their charges upon request. Taxi drivers, barbers, hairdressers and others who provide personal services do not expect tips, but you can round off a bill upwards to the nearest NOK10 if you feel you have been well served. Doormen usually expect tips for services provided, such as for calling or hailing a taxi. Rates vary widely, by location – city or town – and by service – hotel or entertainment, so your best guide to tipping tradition is to ask someone who has been to the place before. (p. 84)

The authors are right on (at least, according to my experience) about taxi drivers and barbers, and although I’ve never stayed in a place with a doorman, I’m sure they know what they’re talking about there too. But even though asking straight out is probably the only reasonable solution to an awkward and potentially embarrassing situation, I have a feeling that Norwegians, known for being somewhat conflict averse, might not tell you directly that they expect to be tipped. I’ve experienced this in Norway, and even here in Minnesota (sometimes people will tell me “you can leave a tip if you want to” which is just a polite way of saying, “please tip me.”) I would amend their last piece of advice, and say that you should ask someone who is from the place, preferably a native Norwegian, or at least someone who’s lived there a long time, rather than another foreign tourist, who’s likely just as confused as the rest of us.

Since we’re on the topic, here’s a quick, interesting piece about tipping in American culture. Drawing on a large body of social science research, the author argues that the amount we tip has very little to do with the quality of service. Instead, he contends, it has to do with whether or not we like the server and how much we want them to like us. If this author has it right, I wonder what the absence of tipping says about Norwegian society?

Has anyone else got any thoughts when it comes to tipping in foreign countries? If so, leave a comment and share with the readers. Make sure to check back tomorrow for more from Norway!

The Norwegian Experience Recruitment Contest is a joint venture between Sons of Norway International and its partner Borton Overseas. The contest is open to all Sons of Norway members who sign up a new, dues-paying member between January 1 and December 31, 2009. A winner will be drawn at random in January of 2010. For more information about this year's contest, visit or click here.


Anonymous said...

Wow. This has been an amazing trip. Judy is my aunt, and she's travelling with my mom, Jani. The two of them always have great adventures and are the life of the party. Thank you for giving them this opportunity and it's so fun to read about them when I've missed a phone call or not been able to catch up with them.

Can't wait for the next installment!


Øyvind said...

Being a native Norwegian, I can tell you that the 'culture shock' regarding tipping is mutual.

As correctly stated in this blog entry, a tip is generally not expected in Norway, and may actually be perceived as an insult in some cases. Therefore, when Norwegians travel, many of us have absolutely no idea how to relate to tipping. I certainly don't.

I will usually round the bill up to whatever amount I think is fair when eating out, depending on the size of the bill and the service received. Since I also do this when paying with a credit card, in which the waiter cannot possibly take the surplus/tip into his own pocket, I don't even consider that to be tipping, it's just something I do if I like the restaurant.

Erik Evans said...

Susie--I'm glad you're enjoying the blog! We're just beginning, so make sure to keep checking back for more. And tell everyone who knows Judy about the blog. I'm sure they'd like to see what she's up to as well.

Øyvind-- Thanks for comment. The concept of tipping sure is one of those cultural sticky-wickets. I know that when I was in Eastern Europe, tipping at times took generational and country-of-origin issues into account. I wonder if anyone has ever written a book on the subject?