You may have already heard that tipping in restaurants in Switzerland is not necessary or even—strictly speaking—allowed. The tip, or Trinkgeld, was in fact abolished 35 years ago, replaced by an all-inclusive bill that covers the tip as well as payment for food and drink.
Immediately after noting that tipping is not necessary, most people if pressed will allow that it's okay to leave something. You should round up the bill to leave a little something extra.
Okay. What does that mean? For someone from the US where tipping is the rule, it means that paying the bill in a restaurant here becomes an uncomfortable moment. How much is enough? Is too much an insult? And how do you leave the tip? On the table? Hand it to the server? There won't normally be a line for it on the credit card bill (which makes sense since a tip is theoretically not needed).
The golden rule in restaurants seems to be to round up. 20 Minuten reports that the industry group GastroSuisse recommends that guests who wish to thank the server for good service should "generously round up" the bill.
That's still pretty vague for me, so I've come up with my own strategy. For something like a coffee, I'll round up to the nearest Swiss franc. For something below 100 francs, I'll round up to the nearest 5 or 10 francs, and for something over 100 francs I start going by percent. Most of the time this is about 10–15 percent, but I'll go even higher in some cases. Truly professional service does tend to stand out around here, and I'd like to do my small part to keep it going. Except for the way I tip on bigger bills, I think this tracks to the way many people tip here.
You can tip too much. I've done it. I used to frequent a little coffee and sandwich place, where the people behind the counter were unfailingly pleasant and efficient. I never tipped. (I was still under the influence of the it's-unnecessary-to-tip notion.) But one day, overcome with ex-waitress guilt, I told the server to keep five francs. Oh dear. That was awkward. Was I sure? Really? No, you don't need to do that. Good grief. Unless your German is up to explaining alien cultural notions, it's best not to rock the boat.
According to an interview in Beobachter, you can also make a tip awkward to accept by saying something like "I need to get rid of my [foreign] change." Tipping really is about rewarding good service. It's not expected and it's not an obligation.
I don't give a Trinkgeld
The flip side of tipping for good service, rather than for all service as in the US, is that you can feel perfectly free not to tip for bad service. I will most definitely skip the tip when service is bad in Switzerland. In the US, the service had to be so abysmal that I hoped the person would leave the business before I would consider leaving nothing. (In the US servers live entirely off of tips. You're not taking away something extra; you're taking away a paycheck when you don't tip.)
How do you. . . ?
So how do you leave a tip? The best way is to do your rounding up when the server comes to collect for the bill, telling him or her how much change you want. You'll get a nice thank you while your server counts out the change, and all will be smoothly concluded. It's also great practice with numbers for German learners.
To tip or not to tip?
According to those interviewed in a December 2009 Beobachter article, tipping is part of the relationship with a regular customer, and it says a lot about who you are. But there's no easy formula. A great regular might never tip but still have a warm relationship with their hairdresser (oh yeah, you can tip in the salon too), according to one Coiffeuse. But never tipping your bartender might send a different message, indicating that even though you're there every Friday night, you don't really like the service or the bartender.
I guess what my tipping says about me is that I'm an American. And maybe it says I've been there. Waiting tables is hard, even if you're not good at it. If you're really good at it, then you are the rare master of an unappreciated art. That's worth a few francs.