A nice group dinner can turn sour when it's time to divvy up the bill
Dessert is reduced to crumbs. Wine glasses and coffee cups are nearly drained. Around the table, everyone's laughing. Then the check comes...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Dessert is reduced to crumbs. Wine glasses and coffee cups are nearly drained. Around the table, everyone's laughing.
Then the check comes.
"Hey!" someone chirps a beat later. "Let's just split the bill between all of us!"
If you're a two-drinks-before-dinner person or a big eater, sweeter words were never spoken.
If you stick to iced tea or have an appetite the size of an appetizer, you're wincing in your chair.
Few routine activities in life can require as much diplomacy, patience and grace as handling a shared check with a big group of friends.
Goodwill abounds with like-minded companions. But when one starts tallying separate tabs on her Blackberry while another advocates for an even split and a third suggests taking turns treating, that afterglow from sharing a meal quickly dims.
Bill splitting is one of the most common concerns that Seattle etiquette consultant Mary Mitchell hears from clients. Taking turns getting the check or dividing the bill roughly along the lines of each person's order is just fine, she says. So are even splits if everyone's along for the ride.
The goal is to avoid putting a damper on a fine occasion. Or, worse, sending someone home feeling cheated.
"Manners are about treating people the way you want to be treated, they're about being respectful. When we cheat somebody, that's bad manners. Period. End of story," Mitchell said.
Ask around town and you'll find most dinner parties include one or more of these characters. Maybe you know someone who fits the description. Maybe it's you:
The Calculator: Who whips out the cellphone to decipher the precise split based on everyone's orders, the tax and tip.
The Moocher: Who never tosses more than a token $10 or $20 on the money pile, or lets everyone else take care of the tipping.
The Equalizer: Who insists on an even split despite vast differences in price.
The Cringer: Who subsidizes the meals of others, paying $30 for a side salad and ice water because she won't speak up.
The Conscientious Objector: Who sees The Cringer getting shortchanged and advocates for a fairer split.
The Wait and See-er: Who does whatever everyone else wants to do, hoping it comes out in her favor.
The Cleanup Splitter: Who is well-off (or wants others to think so) and pitches in the missing $20 or pays the entire bill rather than sit through the discussion.
For the most part, diners say close friends tend to fight more over the privilege of paying than how to divide the check. It's with co-workers and friends of friends when things get especially sticky.
Sometimes, it's easier to just go out with a different group than rock the boat or — quelle horreur! — speak up and be labeled as cheap.
School librarian Amy Young says she always paid more than she owed when she and her boyfriend ate out with his bandmates, who ordered endless appetizers and pitchers of beer. She tried ordering her food separately at the bar. She tried showing up late so she'd miss the first few rounds — she still felt obliged to chip in equally.
"I didn't want to speak up about it, especially because I tended to make more than them," says Young, who eventually stopped hanging with the band. "I never thought they would think I was cheap. It was more kind of when in Rome do like the Romans."
Karen Kawada takes a different tack — change of venue. She meets co-workers from her health-care job at restaurants that itemize separate checks on request, like The Cheesecake Factory. Or they'll grab pizza, an easy meal to divide.
And cash seems to be a social lubricant in these scenarios. Olin Padilla, a waiter at Seattle's Teapot Vegetarian House, says small bills make handling any check easier, especially if a group wants to split it eight different ways.
When he goes out with friends, he considers two things before he calls out a shortchanger.
"If it's a friend who's legitimately broke, I'll look over it. But if someone's trying to shaft us, I'll confront it," he says.
"But most of my friends wouldn't do that."
And there's the rub. If you find yourself always paying more than your fair share out of generosity, shame or fuzzy math, should you keep eating with these folks? Should you instead only eat with friends who favor your style of bill splitting, or who share similar budgets?
Teacher Tina Anima says it took her years to stand up to acquaintances who asked her to pay the same even though she skipped the beer, wine or margaritas.
"I'm more comfortable with myself, so I'm more comfortable speaking out about money, where when I was in my early 20s it mattered to me more but I didn't speak up," Anima said. "Now it doesn't matter. If they think I'm a penny pincher, I'm a penny pincher. I didn't drink, so I shouldn't have to pay."
Attorney Rumei Mistrey sees both sides of the coin. She's chipped in extra to help friends who earn less. But she felt bad on a visit to New York when friends who earned even more took her to hot spots out of her price range.
"I wasn't working at the same type of corporate job at the time and they were. It was stressful for me. I paid my share but it was stressful and I wouldn't have chosen those restaurants," Mistrey said.
"I think you have to read the people around you a bit. I think some people are much more comfortable going Dutch and paying for what they eat. Some people really enjoy the exchange of buying each other meals and taking turns. I just try to be flexible and understand the preferences of my friends and go along with it."
The bottom line on the bottom line is to consider those around your table, says Mitchell, the etiquette consultant. Is everyone in your party able to afford El Gaucho or should you try for the Outback Steakhouse instead? If you drank three glasses of wine to everyone else's one, did you chip in your extra? Is that $2.72 difference between your bill and your friend's really that important in the grand scheme of things?
"Life isn't necessarily about even exchanges, so it's not always going to work out to the penny," Mitchell says.
"But I think what's important is the intent of it. People who are that stingy are probably stingy with their spirit as well."
Karen Gaudette: 206-515-5618 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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