Cheque please — Forget hospitality, split the bill

Published May 20, 2016
A friendly squabble at the end of a meal is often more about social power-play than it is a display of selfless hospitality. — Creative commons
A friendly squabble at the end of a meal is often more about social power-play than it is a display of selfless hospitality. — Creative commons

Now that someone has finally been shot dead in Istanbul over an argument on who gets to pay the restaurant bill, it may be time to consider replacing our valued Eastern tradition of prandial hospitality, for something more practical.

We’ve all been there.

The waiter approaches the table with the cheque, and a fiery argument breaks out among two or more parties of customers dining together, each insisting on paying the whole bill.

The waiter stands awkwardly by the table with an embarrassed smile, eyes darting from one customer to another, struggling to identify the dominant patron.

‘Dominant’ is the person with the most telling characteristics of a host. This is usually an older member of the group, but not a senior citizen. He may be a regular customer, more likely to have brought the newer party to the establishment than the other way around.

Or, he may simply be the patron who signaled the server for the cheque, indicating that he’s the one calling the shots.

Take a look: Dining rules

In case of a male and a female customer simultaneously clamouring for the bill, the waiter is more likely to hand the cheque over to the male.

‘Benevolent sexism’ is apparent, but uncommonly noted; particularly in light of a culture where gentlemen are often at a risk of feeling ‘emasculated’ by a lady paying the bill — unless previously agreed upon by the group that she’s giving a “treat”.

The decision often comes down to whoever’s the loudest.

Ultimately, any customer who lunges forth to physically grab the bill from the waiter’s hand, settles the dispute and liberates the waiter from his state of unnecessary discomfort.

Alternatively, the server may outright refuse to be placed in the centre of the tussle, drop the bill in the middle of the table, and prance back to his station to a crescendo of “Let me! No, let me!”.

Dining dynamics

One may accuse me of being cynical, but a friendly squabble at the end of a meal at a restaurant is often more about social power-play than it is a display of selfless hospitality.

Consider a set of scenarios where one’s likely to fight harder to pay the bill for the entire table. This includes dates, hangouts with amicable acquaintances, and meetings with potential or current business partners.

On the other hand, a person may not insist as strongly on paying when hanging out at a café with a close friend, or when sitting among a very large group at an expensive restaurant.

What separates these situations is the weight of the social incentive of paying the bill, relative to the economic incentive of letting someone else spend money on you.

Whoever pays the bill, walks away with more power than he had when he entered, mostly in the form of enhanced likeability. The non-payer leaves the table with a sense of social debt, and a willingness to compensate for the favour in some other way.

This unspoken debt may be innocuously used to cement a friendship with a desired acquaintance. But consider the less honourable connotation of letting this debt implicitly hang over your business partner, your coworker, or your date.

See: No more waving at waiters for the bill

Close friends do not have much to gain by covering each other’s nominal expenses. If your BFF is already willing to throw himself or herself in front of a speeding bus for you, an attempt to enhance your likeability is simply redundant; and the dinner table politics completely unnecessary.

This is true, unless you’re setting a stage for confessing your attraction to your friend’s ex-boyfriend — in which case, allow your wallet a nice, long taste of the fresh summer breeze.

In case of a very large group, like at an old friends’ reunion, the financial loss of covering the entire table’s bill may not be worth the social power one garners from it.

Now think of what happens when we split the bill among ourselves: We get up, and we walk out as social equals.

We are grateful to one another for nothing more than the good company we enjoyed, and the great time we shared. No member of the party exits the venue feeling guilty for a hefty cost imposed upon a fellow diner.

No one leaves with a false sense of magnanimity; ‘false’ because the other party had not only not asked for this generosity, but had actively resisted it.

Examine: No tipping means more great restaurants

There is further discussion worth having on whether the bill must be divided equally, even when one patron orders an expensive rib-eye steak, and the other nibbles with feigned enthusiasm on a humble green salad. But truthfully, any contribution is better than letting one person pick up the entire cheque.

The next time a waiter drops a leather-bound dread-sheet on your table, know that’s there’s no better exercise in social bonding than sharing the burden you’ve been collectively presented with.

Least of all, don’t squander that opportunity on a well-intentioned shouting match.



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