By Mugambi Mutegi

I have been in the United States for slightly over one month but I still do not know just how much I should tip.

I am reliably advised that the tipping rule of thumb, other than the fact that tipping is not an option, is to give an amount between 15% and 20% of the bill.

I can handle my own when it comes to percentages and ratios, but my problem lies in the fact that tips are a factor of the QUALITY of service rendered.

That word “quality” embodies my ongoing predicament

Were the waiters at the restaurant or bar helpful? How sane was the cab guy’s driving? In short, how good was the service I just received?

Let me first put all of this into perspective. In Kenya, tipping is not mandatory.

It is not obligatory to tip housekeepers, bellmen, a waiter or any other person who offers you a service.

There also is no law stopping anybody from doing so.

If you are feeling sufficiently philanthropic, it is within your right to tip.

Most people in the service sector in Kenya have a fixed salary – or are self-employed — and any extra cash they get is exactly that; extra.

They, unlike people in the U.S., do not live primarily off tips.

After persistently badgering my friends at the Chicago Tribune about the culture of tipping, I was informed that a “fixed salary” scenario also exists for employees in the United States.

Julie Wernau, a reporter with the Tribune, told me that employees earn an hourly rate, which can be likened to a fixed salary.

However, the hourly rate could be as low as $3 per hour.

This is about two and a half times less than the minimum wage of approximately $8.

Therefore, the tips that such an employee receives at the end of his or her shifts have a significant impact on the take-home wage.

This means that, when tipping, the customer has to be alive to the fact that somebody’s well-being depends on the amount written into the blank “tip” space on the receipt.

This is a responsibility that I, reluctantly,  have to shoulder for the next couple of months during my stay here.

Since we have established that I am not accustomed to obligatory tipping, let me ping back to the issue at hand.

How exactly do you determine the quality of service rendered and how do you, based on this assessment, apportion a tipping percentage?

That is the question I am still grappling with.

I have visited a couple of restaurants since I got to the United States –in Washington, D.C, and Chicago — and a couple of bars too.

Armed with zero reference points in terms of what kind of service deserves the full 20% tip, and given that I honestly believed that the service I received in most of these places was excellent, my troubles set in.

Hold up! I just remembered that one steak house I visited insisted on including diced shrimp on the salad, five minutes after I politely informed them of my shellfish allergy. Even with this unfortunate incident, everything else about the service was top class.

After a while, I concluded that I needed to settle on tipping a round, even figure. I unscientifically concluded that that number would 18%.

Not too little and not too much.

I remain convinced that this amount is just enough to keep the cogs of the service industry well-oiled.

I have tipped 20% on three occasions. In the most recent case, I had gone to a bar in my neighborhood to watch a Manchester United football game.

However, all the television sets were airing basketball, ice hockey or baseball. The humongous screen just above the bar’s counter was showing the Masters.

Upon informing the bartender that these sports were the least of my concerns, I was politely asked to move to a different seat.

To my pleasant surprise, the bartender – God bless her heart –tuned one of the TV sets to the EPL game.

Needless to say, I tipped her 20%.