A Tip on My Shoulder (IRB)


ingibjorg2I want to apologise up front to those who haven‘t visited Iceland yet, and to those who have and therefore share my experience of terrible service at restaurants and cafés in Iceland. I‘m ashamed.

In Iceland, service is included in the price on the menu at restaurants and cafés. I used to marvel at that, disliking the complications of knowing how much to tip at any given time, in other countries.

I‘ve been the most frustrated in the States where tipping is some sort of an art form and I found myself writing lengthy calculation formulas on my napkin before knowing what to write on the restaurant bill.

So I‘ve always said with some pride, and relief, to foreigners asking about tipping in Iceland „Oh you don‘t have to worry about that at all, the price on the menu is just that, service included.“

But in recent years, I‘ve discovered the advantages of the tipping culture. Because sometimes, service isn‘t really included. It‘s at those times I would really like to be able NOT to pay the asked price to show my dissatisfaction with the service I‘ve received. But that‘s not possible. I‘m forced to pay for the crappy service one gets at almost every food place in Reykjavík.

It‘s not that Icelanders are particularly unfriendly and unwilling. We just don‘t know much about good service. And there‘s little motivation if you don’t have to depend on tipping; you get paid at the end of the month, regardless of whether you do your job well or not.

You see, for years and years, we had no unemployment here. There was always demand for workers in this sector and almost every college student had a side-job as a waiter, waitress or bartender. Or could easily get one when in need of extra cash.

And somewhere along the line, there was no time to train the staff properly. Why bother when they might leave the post at any minute? Jumping on another opportunity, what with the overflow of job offers all around.

The so-called senior staff weren‘t that well trained either, it didn‘t take long for you to work your way up to a higher position and so we had young, untrained and inexperienced people training the new staff.

In the midst of all this chaotic hiring-and-leaving recruitment mania, work ethics went out of the window as well. I remember working in a café and having to remind the young people working in the kitchen to stand up and get back to work again, after they‘d taken a 15 minute coffee break, which would have gone on and on had nobody said anything. It wasn’t because they were lazy, they just hadn’t learnt about the responsibility of being an employee. And it was my job to teach them.

But for about a decade, we forgot to teach a lot of young people how to work and why to work.

Now of course, everybody clings to their job, whether they like it or not… and whether they‘re good at it or not. The senior staff is just as clueless about how to provide good service so nobody gets fired for doing a lousy job, especially not in these hard times when it‘s so hard finding another job, because they’re co-workers, someone we like, and we wouldn’t want to cause them any trouble.

So, I can wait up to 20 minutes in an almost empty café while the four employees are hurdled together behind the counter, chatting while they slowly wipe glasses and fold napkins.

Then I often wait another 20 minutes for my cup of tea, having to remind my waitress about the milk I asked for instead of the honey she brought.

Once I was having dinner with my sister in a bistro bar in downtown Reykjavík and when my sister reminded the waitress she‘d asked for a slice of lemon in her glass of water, the waitress just turned around and went back to the counter looking very aloof.

My sister and I were still looking at each other in amazement when the waitress returned, carrying a dripping slice of lemon between her fingers and dumped it in my sister‘s water without further ado.

Then there was the time when the sprinkled cheese was actually missing from one woman‘s dish, a mistake made in the kitchen this time. But when she complained, her waitress just shrugged and told her she wasn‘t missing out on much, the cheese wasn‘t all that special; then returned to the counter to hang out with the rest of the staff.

In summer, it becomes even more obvious how the staff at these places seem to rather show up at work to hang out with their co-workers, rather than interact with customers.

On sunny days, restaurants, cafés and bars put up outdoors tables if they possibly can, even if it means they‘ll increase the number of tables by one third, without calling for extra staff. But not only do the customers have to share the few waiting on them, they also have to be quite inventive to get their attention. Those lucky enough to have placed their orders get the staff‘s full attention, and only them.

I‘ve often admired the way the waitresses and waiters can utterly concentrate on the one tray they‘re carrying, the plates they carefully place in front of the people at that one table, totally ignoring all the raised hands at the other tables - then return to the mother ship, sorry, the counter, without looking left or right. It‘s amazing!

It’s all I can do to cope with the fact that I’m paying a fortune for a meal, and service I never receive, which makes me actually want to tip on those rare occasions I do receive good service. It’s a no win situation!

Ingibjörg Rósa Björnsdóttir – ingibjorgrosa@gmail.com

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.