Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Korea's No-gratuity Culture Changing--Some New Guidelines

One question I frequently get asked is " Should I tip for services in Korea?" I usually find it more common in the western-style hotels. But, like this Korea Times article notes, things are changing. Here are some guidelines.

When Gary Barth, a 36-year-old freelance writer, first moved to Seoul in 1999 after marrying his Korean wife, there was one thing he kept doing by accident.

I would absent-mindedly leave a thousand won or two on the table after dining out, and then owners would run after me to return the money, he said. I had to get used to the no-tip culture here.

Like Barth from the U.S., many foreigners from Western countries say they were pleasantly welcomed by the no-gratuity culture in Korea, as the common idea here is that service shouldn't call for additional payment.

However, the conventional understanding is slowly inching toward more Western, as more high-end service businesses are spreading the idea that a good tip follows good service.

From hotels, restaurants to beauty shops, tips are no longer a stranger to both service recipients and providers.

It's now very much understood that our customers will leave a tip after a haircut, said Kim Hyang-mi, a senior stylist at Tony & Guy, a posh beauty salon in southern Seoul. The question is not are they going to leave a tip? but how much will they give?

Ko Chang-hyeon, a manager at a pricey steak house in Bundang, south of Seoul, said his patrons are kind to leave a generous gratuity not only to their direct waiter staff, but to him as well.

It's their way of showing appreciation, but the amount is a little over the top sometimes, said Ko, explaining that some leave more than a 30 percent tip.

A men's suit sales agent for Shinsegae Department Store agreed that select customers are overly generous in the shopping business, too.

Whenever I find that perfect suit'' for some of my top clients, they thank me with `allowance money,' which I would call too much to be a tip, he said.

To this end, the Korean Consumer Researcher, a local consumer culture institute, said there's nothing wrong with tipping, but the lack of understanding can be a problem.

Many people aren't aware that a tip is usually 15 to 20 percent of the bill, so Koreans, too generous at times, tend to leave more than they should,'' said Lee Kyung-ae, a researcher of consumer behavior. That raises the bar of expectations.

She stressed that the practice of tipping is not for the rich, but a day-to-day custom for those mainly in the U.S. and Europe.

Gratuity may sound simple, but it can be manipulated into a bribe, too, said Lee, explaining that some customers may think that they deserve more than others just because they leave a fat tip.''

Tips keep their intended meaning only when it's kept as a measure of etiquette, she said.


  1. Anonymous4:17 PM

    Tipping is a scourge on the consumer.
    Tipping at the end doesn't guarantee good service. I still get the inattentive cashiers, hair stylists who handle my hair as if they were cutting weeds, and careless wait staff who bring out the wrong order. I never had these problems while living in non-tipping Japan.
    Tipping should be stamped out.

  2. Interesting, some in Korea may not see Tipping and its direct relationship to outstanding service.