Etiquette: chip and PIN

It is my belief that resistance to the introduction of chip and PIN lies not in reservations about its security compared with the signature or the difficulty of remembering yet more numbers in our digit-festooned world, but in our worry that we don’t know the correct etiquette for chip and PIN payment.

With signatures, we knew the form: wait until the merchant hands us the receipt, sign and return it, and receive a copy. Nice and simple. With chip and PIN, this interaction is complicated by the mediating machine. Whose instructions are we ultimately following? When the machine tells us to ‘Insert card’, should we comply, or delay until we receive verbal instruction? Should we wait to be told by the merchant we may ‘Remove card’, or do so when the machine prompts us?

And should we interact solely with the machine, or is this a ménage à trois of payment? Do we hand our card to the merchant to place in the machine, keeping them as a buffer between ourselves and the intimidating technology, or should we cut out the middleman?

These dilemmas are complicated by the fact that most merchants haven’t yet decided on a set etiquette for this new form of payment. Some look positively affronted if you start the process without them, while others tut and sigh if you stare at the machine dumbly, awaiting their go-ahead.

No one has, as yet, produced the definitive guide to the art of chip and PIN, despite the system operating in France for over ten years before we adopted it in the UK.

Perhaps this is because the need for strict etiquette is a peculiarly British phenomenon. It is a way of distancing us from the sordid consumer act, belying the very fact that we are handing over money in exchange for goods. Our confusion over the chip and PIN etiquette requires us to interact more than we would like, calling attention to the purchasing that is going on.

When we have grown accustomed to chip and PIN we can of course reduce this pesky human interaction, communicating solely with machine rather than man (provided the wonderful technology does not fail us), making chip and PIN the ultimate form of British payment.

However, the problem remains that paying by chip and PIN leaves one feeling rather exposed in a way that scrawling a signature did not. The official advice is to cover the terminal with one hand while keying in your PIN with the other, but that always makes me feel rather like a wannabe James Bond, covertly entering a top-secret code to disarm the nuclear device that will shortly destroy London.

It also suggests a lack of trust in the people surrounding you, the innocuous fellow shoppers and serving staff who, your actions suggest, are apparently poised to spy your precious code with their sharp eyes and filch your card at the earliest opportunity.

The social awkwardness associated with chip and PIN occurs in a variety of other situations, such as when leaving a tip in restaurants. While the customer used to be left to ponder over whether the carefully honed faux-Italian accent merits an extra couple of pounds, or whether the mix-up with the starters brings a heavy penalty, now we are forced to make a snap decision over the level of gratuity, with the recipient hovering beside us.

In addition, waiting staff are losing out, paying VAT on chip and PIN tips, rather than collecting tax-free cash from the table. The kind act would be to leave a tip the old-fashioned way, rather than using the chip and PIN system, but this will lead to an awkward moment of hitting ‘No’ in response to ‘Would you like to leave a tip?’, in full view of your waiter. How to indicate that you will in fact be rewarding them for their considered attention, but will be outfoxing the technology and the government in order to do so?

The Chip and PIN system is a social minefield in need of a modern-day Emily Post to guide us through it. Once we know which way we are stepping, I am sure us British consumers will be more inclined to accept it. As long as we can remember our PIN number?