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Berlin and beyond

Tamsin Walker
January 19, 2018

To tip or not to tip, that is the question. Except here in Berlin, you shouldn't expect any definitive answers, as Tamsin Walker found out in some unusual places.

Berlin and Beyond: Tipping
If you want some of it back, leave the thanks for laterImage: DW/T. Walker

To tip or not to tip?

The first time I realized just how alien the rules of Germany's tipping culture are to me was at the end of a less-than-glorious camping trip. When presented with the bill for my plot, I was so glad to be leaving that I handed over the money with an apparently hasty "danke."

Had I waited a moment longer, I'd have been given 8 euros in change. As it was, I later found out, the act of saying "thank you" at the moment I did, meant there was no change. At least not for me. Lesson learned. Two lessons, in fact, as I've not pitched a tent since.

I have though, periodically wondered about the who, when, where of tipping in this country… To make things clear before I go any further, I'm not a gratuities grump. Far from it. I just think it helps to know the rules.

And both pre- and post-camping, I'd been led to believe there was only really one. Unofficially enshrined, it dictates that Trinkgeld or drink money — as tips have tellingly been known for centuries in Germany — should be around 10 percent of the bill and given to taxi drivers, hairdressers, waiters and waitresses.

Friseur Iro Punk Irokesen Haarschnitt
Tipping prettyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K.Nietfeld

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But the increasing emergence of tips jars on coffee house and shop counters coupled with a recent conversation in which a waitress told me she routinely leaves a little extra for the butcher and the baker, has brought the when, where and who of it all to the surface.

And the search begins...

Where better to start my quest for clarity than in a taxi. The driver, confirmed, with inimitably brusque Berlin charm, that most locals give a bit, and most Italians don't bother. One point, then, for my existing tipping wisdom. But he then went on to tell me how he keeps the wheels of generosity turning by sweetening the pot for electricians, carpenters, plumbers and his mailman. 

A car money box with a Union Jack on the roof
An invitation to oil those wheels of generosity Image: DW/T. Walker

So I'm back at square one. I know nothing. More than nothing, I established, as my onward search delivered me through the doors of a florist, a sandwich bar and a shop selling olive oil and vinegar, armed with a question I was sure would see me laughed back onto the street. How wrong I was. They all, though some more often than others, receive tips.

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But the more I think about the conversations, the more I realize everyone else is as muddled as me. There's something Dr. Seuss-esque about the waitress who tips the baker who doesn't tip the plumber who does tip the taxi driver who doesn't tip the physiotherapist who does tip the hairdresser who doesn't tip the postman... and so it goes on. Everyone just making it up as they go along.

As a rule, I like that approach. It's open to interpretation. Rather like the word danke.

In Berlin and beyond, British-born Tamsin Walker takes a closer look at some of the quirks and perks of life in Germany, which has been her home for almost 20 years. She tweets as @TamsinkateW 

Trailer: Berlin and Beyond

Deutsche Welle Tamsin Walker
Tamsin Walker Senior editor with DW's environment team