Fight or fright: Who pays the bill at the end of the meal?
That awkward moment when the bill arrives at a group meal and types of payers
Imagine you are sitting at a restaurant table with a group of friends — or ‘like-minded’ people… the meal is over, the chitchat is done — and it’s time to pay the bill. Since the art of (compulsively) pulling out respective wallets — like the Knights of the Round Table would unsheathe their swords to defend a lady’s honour — have been perfected by us to an extent where our command performances would accord us an Oscar, the next question is: who really pays the bill? How many of us, for instance, while pulling out wallets don’t secretly wish “Dear God, let me not be the one doing solo honours — I ate the least in case you noticed.”
I just described a setting that would, typically, consist of south Asians. What usually ensues is a round of “Let me” and “No, let me”, and “Absolutely not, let me be the one”, and finally several pairs of eyes swivel towards the person who’s had the last word… maybe he or she is not particularly happy that no one else followed suit more emphatically, but it’s like a game of bridge and it’s a final call of “four no trumps”.
In a more Westernised setup, there’s this thing called “going Dutch”. According to dictionary.com, going Dutch means that “every person in a group of diners or imbibers pays for their themselves. It’s popularly thought the expression originated as a British slur towards the perceived stinginess of Dutch people”.
People from the subcontinent have, traditionally, sneered at this ‘Western’ value. They referred to it as being ‘small-minded’ because they believed they were/are large-hearted enough to foot the bill for the entire company.
But there’s a subtext here — in the form of a very different brand of politics. The man — or woman — with the largest heart is often the perpetual scapegoat, and others are ever ready to leech off him or her.
Another setting is where people take turns to pay. Today, it’s my turn, tomorrow it’s yours, that kind of stuff. And here, I’ve often come across those who are perfectly happy to go to a fine-dining outlet when it’s someone else’s turn to pay for the evening… but when the day (or night) comes for them to hold up their side of the bargain, they are suddenly besieged by cheap and cheerful cravings for ‘hole in the wall’-type offerings.
Increasingly, however, I find that south Asians have started warming up to “going Dutch”. There’s a caveat, though. In the company I keep, for instance, there’s a variant of going Dutch that is followed: the final tally is divvied up equally among diners. It’s something a lot of folks gnash their teeth over — in private. The obvious loophole in this is that a lot of us eat more expensive stuff (organic salmon for a healthy non-vegetarian vs grilled ‘garden veggies’ for the green warrior, do the math); and a lot of us eat more than the average mean. All that adds up and doesn’t make sense in the “equalness of payment”. Which is why I think the original going Dutch is perhaps the best option.
Then you have these clichés about some people strategically timing their washroom manoeuvres right before the bill is presented so they can come back and exclaim, “Why did you pay the bill? You should have waited for me! Anyway, next time, I’m picking up the tab”, while the other person mutters to self, “You better.”
A friend had told me this story: once, he and his wife were invited to attend the birthday celebrations of an office colleague of his. They fetched up with a gift at pre-decided restaurant (a real posh, top-dollar one) and drank and ate their way through the extortionate evening. At the end of the meal, everyone around the table was asked to cough up their share. “Now, that,” my friend sighed, “was in bad taste. We were invited for God’s sake, if you are asked out by someone, it’s expected that the host is hosting the meal.”
I get that. If someone calls you for a celebration, the onus should be on the other party. But, on the flip side, maybe the birthday boy or girl, or the anniversary couple, feel it’s their big day, so why can’t the others step up? It’s confusing really.
Which is why I find solo eat-outs (or eat-outs with the Significant Other because, in this case, two become one) very comforting. You know exactly what you are getting into, and you never bite off more than you can chew.