Monday, January 17, 2011

The Service You Get - in Finland and in USA

A common quote from a Finn visiting United States is how surprising it is to actually get service in a restaurant or just a typical grocery store, after getting used to the service level in Finland. Is this impression really justified?

I have travelled in several U.S. states and also lived in Michigan for half a year now. Unfortunately, I must say that the level and type of service you can expect in United States is of much higher level than in Finland.

I have been to Las Vegas three times. It is a city known for its services - hotels, restaurants, entertainment and so on, so it is logical to get good service there, isn't it? But I have been elsewhere, too, and encountered friendly employees everywhere, at least on Finnish standards. Sure, waitresses may be a bit annoying when they once in a while come to care about the water level in your glass and ask about how you are doing with your hamburger. This is just unprecedented on Finnish scale. But what is this Finnish scale?

There are many not-so-favorable descriptions of Finns and the Finnish culture. Finns are shy, introverted, even depressed. They do not start conversations and refuse any smalltalk. Some of this is actually true. When a Finn goes to a restaurant, he or she pays for the (amount of) food, not the service. Giving a tip would be insane, especially as in a Finnish restaurant nobody bothers you with the so-called service! Also, hiring people in Finland is insanely expensive, as are rents and infrastructure, so the few employees must care about more important things. Finnish restaurants are much less formal than American ones - you do not have to wait to be seated, you usually just pick your seat. (I am not commenting about fine dining here. That would probably have less differences.)

What about tips, then? Do they really ensure that the service level is good? I think tipping is a very bad practice, for several reasons. It adds ambiguity to the salary. In many states you can pay below minimum wage, if the employee gets tips. (By the way, 40 % of tips do not get reported to the tax officials.) It adds ambiguity to the actual cost of the service. It adds a level of commercialism to the actual service, as if you should pay extra for "good" service, in addition to the "normal" service that you ordered. And, after all, the employers do not want to pay their employees more than the minimum wage (or much less, if permitted) - it should be up to the customers to pay them! This system makes the waiters and waitresses (and other to be tipped) practically private business owners or contractors, not employees.

Do tips ensure or encourage better service? Some have even proposed that tip is actually an acronym for "to insure promptness"! Common sense might say that they do. However, in his New York Times column, Steven A. Shaw provided another view. An attractive waitress gets most tips, not the one who provides the best service.

A tip is always a voluntary payment, a gift (of which you have pay tax, of course, as it is income). However, if it is also salary to the person servicing you, how can it be voluntary? Are these free services that you may pay for if you want? Is that not somewhat degrading, even? To me, it portrays itself as a social game with money involved. A work is serious business, not tricks and games. These people, who happen to work in some service field position, are living their lives, studying, raising a family like others. I think their job should offer the level of reliable income like other jobs.


  1. Working in food service, I have to point out that most severs make 2.50 an hour. A restaurant has the lowest start-up costs of most any business. I don't much appreciate capitalism in most situations, but the service I got in Italy/Amsterdam was pretty bad. Food costs tend to be a bit cheaper, as restaurants don't have to figure entire wages into their food costs.

    I tip high. I think that if you cannot afford to tip, you should not go out. The service industry is quite stressful- because I relate to that stress I want to show my appreciation.

    Wealthy people tend to tip the lowest, too.

  2. I totally agree. It's just too entrenched in the culture, that it's somehow "capitalist" or "American" to tip, so I don't see it changing anytime soon.