Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Dinner Bill

The following post is from Peter, who has recently been promoted to a Senior Columnist (!!!) at Awkwardize (nevertheless, he refuses to share his surname):

“Hey, Peter, I’m having my birthday dinner on Saturday. Are you free? I’d love it if you came!”

NO! Tell her you can’t go, Peter! Make up an excuse! “For you, I’m always free. I’d love to go!”

That is me feebly and knowingly resigning myself to my inevitable fate. I even like the girl who invites me to her birthday dinner. In fact, the only reason I don’t make up an excuse is because she’s too good of a friend to lie to. But still, I know how the dinner will end.

On Saturday afternoon, she finally tells me the name and address of the restaurant she has chosen for the night. I don’t Google it. I’m going no matter what, so why even bother? When I show up to the place at 9:15pm, it turns out to be a swanky Mexican restaurant. Our table has been delayed, so, to kill time and to set a rowdy tone for the night, I head to the bar with my three dinner companions, where we each order a drink. $12 dollars down the drain. That’s the price of a 6-pack of Guinness extra stout—my favorite beer at the local liquor store.

Upon getting seated at the table, another round of drinks is ordered. C’mon guys, I’m living off a non-profit NGO salary! I look at the menu, and, of course, all of the dinner options are $20-30. Dinner was an hour and a half of laughs. While I tried my best to remain pleasant on the surface, my nerves just would not relax as I could not steer my thoughts away from the impending check.

Finally, the waiter drops the black book on the table, but, before any of us looks at the bill, a guy at the table who is desperately gaming the birthday girl turns to her and says, “It’s your birthday. I refuse to see you pay a single cent of this. The three of us will split the bill.”

I understand that it is standard procedure not to let the birthday girl pay. That being said, when the birthday girl, who comes from a very wealthy background, chooses to have drink-heavy meal at a swanky restaurant for her birthday dinner with friends who are living on a tight budget, at least in my book, she implicitly gives up her privilege to free ride the meal. In addition, if you are gaming a girl, you don’t split her dinner bill with two other people.

My final tab: $84 that I’ll never see again. That’s the equivalent of almost 14 Big Potbelly sandwiches.

The above story is my most awkward experience, but there are many ways a dinner bill can get awkward One thing I learned early on is to never be the sucker who first goes for the check when you’re part of a moderately sized group. If you do, you’ll be the one doing the math. You’ll be the one trying to scrap extra dollars from people who have already overpaid because one or two douchebags are trying to free ride. You’ll be the one forced to pay for the guy who left early and forgot to pay. You’ll be the guy crunching numbers on your cell phone’s calculator because of that anal girl wants to know exactly what she owes. You’ll be the one asking the waiter if the bill is correct because half the group doesn’t realize that their $12 meal is actually $16 dollars when tax and tip are included.

When a check is settled smoothly, it’s exhilarating. It causes one’s heart to race with happiness because it really doesn’t happen very often. Dinner bill awkwardness is never in one’s control. If you eat before-hand, and consequently just show up to the meal to be social, you sit awkwardly watching everyone else eat, nibble on scraps, and catch flack for not being "part of the group". One time, because so many people left before the bill arrived, I had to pay $30 at a birthday dinner even though I didn’t even order anything. All I did was try food I was offered and eat leftovers that nobody else was going for. If you ask for separate checks at the beginning of the meal, you implicitly convey your distrust in your peers. If you regularly avoid going to meals with friends, you send the message that you don’t enjoy their company and that they’re not actually your friends. Or that you're just a miserly, antisocial, self-absorbed prick.

The dinner bill really, really sucks.

"Keep ordering more booze John, seeing as I can't afford it!"

Addendum Part I (by Clay):
Some very good points, Peter (as always). At the heart of it, what the dinner bill is confronting is the tension of money among friends. In any group of friends, it's inevitable that some make more money than others. In fact, sometimes it is the case that one may have a plethora of money in the bank (and wouldn't skip a beat to front a $431.38 bill). Yet it is somehow viewed as condescending for them to pay for the entire group or for someone to free-ride on his behalf. 

For whatever reason, it's seen as emasculating for one friend to always (or even just once) pay for the group (at least without a special occasion as an excuse), even if he/she has millions in the bank, is very willing (and probably happy) to do so, and the rest of the group works for nonprofits. Yet many times it is the elephant in the room that everyone is thinking- why are we calculating out the intricate math of whether I owe $20 or $24 when Rob could pay the entire bill and it would only amount to 1% of his weekly paycheck! But Rob paying is demoralizing, somehow indicative that we are inferior to him by our inability to pay for an expensive dinner bill. Yet we are only justified in feeling this way if we view money as actually representing any sort of meaningful "status" that matters beyond paying ones bills. When you actually think the matter through, it seems silly have such a view/feeling, especially among friends. Nevertheless, such a visceral feeling is difficult to shake. 

For some reason the poorer person feels emasculated, and perhaps humiliated having their much wealthier friend pay the bill, so refuses to allow it, biting his tongue and "toughing it out," even if it means going into a little debt that week. The wealthier person is aware of the feeling the poorer person has, and thus does not offer because doing so would make his friend feel "inadequate", not to mention it would be "tacky." Yet, whether it is spoken or not, it remains the elephant in the room. Why should we let our egos and societal norms prevent us from enabling the outcome that is best for us and our friends?

In general, money among friends makes things awkward. You lone a friend $20 bucks. You spot him for lunch a few times. Sure, with good friends you should never "keep track," as they say. After all, you should be happy to treat your friend to lunch or spot his movie ticket. And most of us, given that we have enough money to do so, are happy paying for friends. But what about when you simply don't have the money? You're fresh out of college making $35k a year working in Manhattan and you simply need every dollar you can get. No one wants to be the cheap guy who calls up his friend a week later and asks him for that $16 back. Calculating all these "who owes whom what" somehow seems to boil life down to depressing economic figures. It's easy to say one should just never talk about money in front of others or ask for a small amount back from a friend. However, it's also true that such an attitude, over time, can lead to haphazard spending and awful money management (at least for someone who makes very little money).

Addendum Part II (by Clay): 
Another awkward part: the concept of who pays the bill. If you take a girl out to dinner for a date, obviously tradition dictates that the man pays. OK fine. Even machismo aside, traditionally the person who invites the other person out is the one who should pay. Thus, given that the man invited the girl out, he should pay. Still, most of the time you get the half-baked effort from the girl to pay and you have to have that entire phony argument, even though you both know exactly how it's going to end. Second date, sure same thing. Third date, fine OK. 

Ok now you're dating. You're practically "an item." The dates are much less formal and not even necessarily called "dates". Maybe you go out for pizza together or eat at a diner for lunch one day. Who pays then? I hear many couples say they switch back and forth. But what if one person is working in investment banking and the other person for Peace Corps? Do you somehow time the dates such that going to the nice restaurants falls upon the banker's "turn" and the casual pizza date on the Peace Corps "turn"? For some reason these things feel awkward to explicitly talk about among one another. Yet I feel much of the tension would be released (and thus the awkwardness) if we were all very straightforward about who can afford what and thus who should pay for what, given that the two people want to go to X type of restaurant Y times a month. 

We find ways of sneakily letting things "fall into place" the way they should (like having the banker's turn to pay fall upon the nice restaurant night), so it's clear that we want things to be a certain way. Why don't we just have a conversation about it? It seems to me money would actually be less of a big deal if it weren't such a taboo. The whole idea that one should never reveal what one makes or that talking about money is tacky breeds the feeling that it is some uber-important secret. I remember hearing on the news that during the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese government had to train Chinese taxi drivers to not ask passengers/tourists how much they made (because it's obviously seen as rude and invasive to Americans). Apparently in China, it is one of the first things you ask someone, the equivalent of the proverbial Amreican small talk of "Oh, what do you do?"

Perhaps society is better the way it is in America, where people do not discuss money or what they make. I'm really not sure. But it does seem like there are certain cases in which talking about it (perhaps even in general terms, not mentioning specific figures of salaries) would make friend groups better off. 

Maybe that's part of the reason why we love the straightforwardness of the show Entourage (at least in the first season)- 4 best friends, one of whom is rich and pays for basically everything for all of them. I think the coolest part about that show is that whenever Vince is in financial trouble or things are looking bad, he always says something to the effect of, "worse comes to worst we can always just go back to living in the small apartment in Brooklyn. We'll still be best friends. I came from nothing, and as much as I like the toys, I can live without them." It's interesting: by Vince being so forthright about the fact that he's paying for all of his friends' stuff, the act is actually less emasculating and furthermore money isn't really a big deal to them or seen as fundamental to any of their identities.