To tip or not to tip ... it is a question of culture. But the answer isn’t related only to your own culture as much as the culture of the recipient and of much broader norms and expectations. If travelling or relocating to a new country, ask around to understand when tipping is expected and appreciated, and when it can be taken the wrong way.

Erring on the side of tipping isn’t always a safe bet. In fact, you might land in legal trouble if your tip is perceived to be a bribe. So how can you decipher the tipping code in a new place? Here are a few tips — pun intended — to be kept in mind.

Talk to experts

Ask friends, coworkers or neighbours about the prevailing culture of tipping: When would your tip be expected, for which services, and how much. In addition, ask about what services tips are not required. Observe what others do and follow suit. When you have sufficient time ahead of a service, research the answer.

Try to understand body language as well. In some places, a service provider, like a plumber or electrician, who lingers after a service is completed could be expecting a tip. In other places, it is just a sign of respect to ensure your questions about service are fully answered. In fact, many service providers, especially those who run their own small businesses, may bundle gratuity into their original quotes.

For other services, like at restaurants, know the amount of tip as a percentage of the cost. Because if in a new place, you might not have a good sense of the currency value. And if wanting to earn a good tipper status is a priority, be sure to get the percentage right. Finally, balance what is heard about the right tipping model with your own approach to tipping.

Remember, even where tipping is expected, a foreigner or visitor might still be excused for not doing so.

Don’t tip officials

Regardless where you go and even if in a country where corruption is rampant, don’t try to tip civil servants or police officials. Anything that can be taken as a bribe can land one in jail. In most corrupt systems, there are unwritten codes for whom to tip, how and when.

If unfamiliar with how this works, you might offend someone. In addition, no one will want to participate or encourage unethical, illegal conduct.

Price vs. gratuity

At many places, gratuity is included in the price to avoid any misunderstanding. In other situations, it is not. When getting a service like a haircut, check the fine print to know what the price includes. This will help if you are expected to pay extra for gratuity or not. Tips and gratuity indicate satisfaction with the services — so don’t feel obliged to tip if you are not.

Tipping alternatives

While cash is king, think of other ways to thank for excellent service. Many service providers, like drivers and contractors, try to build their online reviews. Taking the time to enter a positive review can be highly appreciated — and it won’t strain your budget.

Similarly, gifts can be less awkward than cash for professionals, like teachers. A nice gesture of appreciation can come in many forms, so don’t be limited to paying money. In fact, sending a “Thank You” card to a service provider can make this person’s day. Many go above and beyond, but they don’t get the recognition they deserve. So in cases where one is unsure when tipping is appropriate, think of these alternatives.

When to tip

  • Know the cultural differences
  • Don’t tip officials or police
  • Servers are okay to tip
  • Gas station attendants are fine to tip

Rania Oteify, a former Gulf News Business Features Editor, is a Seattle-based editor.