Well It Seemed A Good Idea At The Time…

Words by

Published September 11, 2012

It can weigh a little heavily when you know you’re responsible for corrupting a whole nation.
To be honest, it was so long ago that I don’t lose much sleep over it these days. But there’s a twinge of sadness and regret when I encounter ever-increasing examples of it while travelling around Iceland. Yet there was no ill intention. It was simply an error of judgment, a mere foolishness that was born out of ignorance and a distorted sense of generosity.
You see, I am the person who introduced tipping to Iceland. Until I came along, it didn’t exist.  
It happened back in the early seventies in a burger-and-fries cafeteria beside a gas station on the edge of Akureyri. It was my first time in the country, and I was young and easygoing and had money back then.
When I got up from my meal I left a few coins on the table.  “Excuse me,” said the young waitress as she cleared the plates, “you’ve forgotten your change.”  I smiled at her in the way that seasoned travellers do. “Oh, that’s just a small tip,” I said a little smugly.
Of course, I didn’t realise at the time that she’d never heard of a tip before. She frowned. “I don’t understand.”  
Writers are allowed some journalistic licence, but I swear this is a pretty accurate account of the conversation, etched in my mind as it was then.
“A gratuity…” I said with a measure of patronising pomposity, “…a small token of my appreciation of a meal well served.”
She still didn’t understand and certainly didn’t appear to enjoy my attempt at humour. “You want to pay more than the meal cost?” she asked.
“No, no. It’s for you.” I was growing uncomfortable.
“You want to give me money?” She pointed somewhat disdainfully at the meagre collection of coins. “Why? What do you want from me?”
She was no more than seventeen, blonde and attractive. Quite late at night, we were the only people left in the place. She looked anxious. Clearly, she thought I was up to no good and began to back away towards the kitchen door. “I don’t want your money. I already get paid,” she said.
I thought it best I depart, which I did, quite rapidly, blustering my way onto the street.
I guess she must have spoken to her waitress friends about her weird encounter and at some point they would have come to the conclusion that although this was a strange thing for people to do, it didn’t require anything on their part—not even a smile, thank God—and was therefore pretty neat since there was money in it. And these folk were foreigners after all.
Somehow, but not unexpectedly, the idea spread from that small café across the country and in the years that followed I began to notice little white bowls partly filled with coins appear beside cash registers in cafés and bars.  And now it’s endemic. You couldn’t stamp it out if you tried.  
Oh, there are rear-guard actions against it—fought mainly and bravely by Icelanders themselves who believe it to be a dreadful practice.
Many of my Icelandic friends would never dream of tipping after a meal, no matter how good it was or how convivial the atmosphere or how friendly and accommodating the restaurant staff. “I’m totally against it,” said one who happens to be a fishing guide and who would be mightily pissed off if his client didn’t slip him a decent fold of notes at the end of the week.  
“Ah, that’s different,” he said. “I’m totally against giving tips.”
See what I mean about corrupting a nation?

Ian Bain is a former foreign correspondent and media consultant who has visited 70 countries and lived in six of them. 



Mag
Opinion
<?php the_title(); ?>

So What’s This I Hear About Iceland Being The 17th Best Country In The World?

by

Something called The Good Country Index was published recently. It is a list of 125 countries ranked according how much good they do in the world, from Ireland at the top to Libya at 125th. As a marketing stunt, it was brilliant, generating a few hundred thousand news articles around the globe. It was, predictably enough, conceived by a marketing guy who, even more predictably enough, paid someone else to do all the hard work. You can take a wild guess at which one got most of the media attention. The guy who did all the work? No. But let

Mag
Opinion
<?php the_title(); ?>

Ask Not on Whom the Sun Shines

by

If the State Prosecutor decides to take the Interior Ministry to court, for breach of confidentiality, slander, and abuse of public office against two asylum seekers, the Capital Area Police will in all likelihood handle the criminal investigation, as it has until now. Since the police is subordinate to the Interior Ministry, the police thereby investigates its own superiors. There seems to exist little, if any, protocol for that, which calls for some improvisation. Which is the best way forward? Which way towards a convincing, ethical code of conduct? Should the Minister resign? —No, you are confusing Iceland with some

Mag
Opinion
<?php the_title(); ?>

Ungoo

by

[Continued from Ungoo: Part IX] Earlier this year, a free-trade agreement between Iceland and China took effect. Iceland is the first, and so far the only, European country to make such an arrangement with the People’s Republic of. No one knows what that means. Literally no one. Perhaps some politicians, administrative staff or business managers think they do: they probably have some rough estimates about the agreement’s effects on our GDP, and at some point may have read an article or two about whether or not China has any imperial ambitions in the arctic. By and large, they would seem

Mag
Opinion
<?php the_title(); ?>

Ungoo

by

[Continued from Ungoo: Part VIII] Combined, these faults admittedly sound like the joke about that restaurant: two friends go out for dinner; one complains that the food tastes terrible to which the other replies: yes, and the portions are way too small. The like-button is probably the greatest invention since the billboard, and just as inattentive to thinking. Facebook is fast, whereas most sources seem to agree that depth is slow. If Facebook is the way we converse and, thereby, think, then yes, our culture is probably pretty shallow. Our, as in: yours too, wherever you are from. We are

Mag
Opinion
<?php the_title(); ?>

Ungoo

by

[Continued from Ungoo: Part VII] Which brings us back to Facebook. You may or may not know that a government agency called Promote Iceland has based whole marketing campaigns on encouraging the country’s inhabitants to employ social media to lure visitors. If those plans received any criticism at all, most of that probably appeared as Facebook posts, which were then drowned in more life-affirming messages. Nonetheless, debates take place on Facebook. If an interesting article appears elsewhere, whether on Starafugl or in Fréttablaðið, Facebook is still where most of the following debate will take place. Facebook is a radically new

Mag
Opinion
<?php the_title(); ?>

Ungoo

by

[Continued from Ungoo: Part VI] The most recent attempt to create a common venue for cultural commentary and debate is Starafugl, a website started and edited by author Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl. It’s been around since last winter. As I have been involved in various ways, I am liable to be considered biased when I claim that Starafugl has had a convincing first few months. I claim it, all the same. Starafugl ran into trouble a few weeks back, when it received its first ever invoice. The invoice charged Starafugl for a photograph, that had been used to illustrate an article

Show Me More!