Monday, June 23, 2014

Who should pay for dinner?

Photo Credit: Robert Donovan /Flickr

I confess straightaway that I am not an expert in etiquette. However, I was truly puzzled by some of the points made by Troy Patterson in his recent advice column at Slate.

First, he claimed that in the context of romantic dating, whoever asks for the date should pick up the check. I hesitate to disagree, though this practice has not been a habit of mine, but Patterson's reasoning for this conclusion is wholly unpersuasive. He writes: 'If P asks Q out to dinner, P is inherently announcing the intent to take Q out: “May I take you out to dinner?”'

If this were the right translation, I'd have to agree. If you offer to pay for someone's dinner,and they accept, that gives you pretty good reason to pay for their dinner. But asking someone out to dinner in no way implies you want to take them out to dinner. It only means you want to go out to dinner with them., which is not at all the same thing. Primarily, the difference between taking someone out to dinner and going out to dinner with someone is that in the first instance, you fund the evening. Patterson has equivocated between these two distinct notions and failed to make a substantive point.

More confusingly, he insists that when groups go out to dinner, they should either split the check up evenly, or not at all (that is, one person should end up paying.) This is mistaken for several reasons.

One reason is that it need not be a complicated mess to split up a check, as Patterson implies. Many restaurants, including one of my favorites, will often split up a check by seat, making it quite easy for each guest to pay their fair share. If you know a restaurant does not do this, you can always ask for separate checks at the outset (which can also be helpful when certain individuals leave earlier than others).

This approach might be disfavored because it is burdensome to the waitstaff. This is unfortunate, but I doubt it is overly onerous. Perhaps it just calls for a slightly higher tip. After all, you don't get paid to do anything because it's easy. And it would also be easier for waitstaff to group my check together with the strangers sitting next to me--this doesn't mean there's good reason to do it.

So there is a viable alternative to Patterson's prescription. There is also a huge pitfall with his approach. He says that we shouldn't be to worried about paying more than our fair share every now and then, because in the end it ought to even out. And if it's not evening out, we should ostracize those who overindulge.

This, however, is unnecessary. Some people simply require more calories than others, and some enjoy more expensive drinks and entrees. There's no reason that these differences should dictate friendship groupings, especially when there is an easy solution.

Even worse, the fact of splitting a check up evenly might induce each individual to spend more than they otherwise would. Since each extra drink or appetizer only adds marginally to one's financially obligation (since the cost of each is divided among all the attendees) , everyone is incentivized to over-consume. In the end, everyone is paying more than they would have had they paid for their own meals. And they probably will have more booze and food than would be optimal.

This collective action problem can be easily fixed through coordinated agreements. But since the goal is to have fun with friends, no one really wants to say "Let's all try and make sure the bill doesn't get out of hand." This seems to defeat the whole purpose of having etiquette, anyway.

Patterson may be right about what the etiquette, in fact, entails in these cases. Social mores are complex and nuanced, and are not always completely rational (just consider gift-giving). But I think we often should change them, if we can, to be more rational than the status quo.