Friday, January 16, 2009

Splitting the bill - East vs West

I was reading a post over at I Eat Therefore I Am about the etiquette of splitting the bill equally amongst a group in restaurants. Is that the best way, or is it better to work out what you ate and just pay for that?

It got me to thinking about what me and my peoples do when the bill comes, and about how much this practice is cultural. Usually we split it. Since the majority of the folks I eat out with are of East Asian and South Asian background, I couldn't help but wonder if there was some connection there with how we pay. Thanh who blogs at IETIA tends to favour the equal split. Could this have anything to do with his Vietnamese background? This is mere speculation on my part, but I'll explain the reasoning behind this.

Western-style restaurants tend to encourage their diners to eat individual meals. Most restaurants serving non-Western cuisines, whether they be Chinese, Indian, Lebanese, Ethiopian, Thai or whatever, tend to favour a communal approach to dining in which everyone shares the food. I realise I'm making gross generalisations here, by the way. I blogged on this in the past (read it here).

Sharing the food has a logical connection to sharing the bill. So given that Asians will usually eat Asian food more frequently, perhaps they are more used to splitting the bill. Hmm?

As a general rule, my posse has an unspoken understanding when the bill arrives. If we all shared the food, we share the bill. If you had a bit more stuff, like dessert or alcohol, that not everyone had, you pay a bit more, and others might pay a little less accordingly. If on the other hand it was a meal consisting of individually oriented dishes, we may split it sometimes, but often people will pay only for what they ordered. I'll tend to do whatever suits me because of my chronic tightassedness.

Both ways can have their problems. As a vegetarian, what I eat is frequently cheaper than what the meat-eaters eat, and fortunately I have friends who are take this into account when it is relevant. But not everyone is sensitive to this sort of thing; for example, the person who drinks 6 beers with the meal and then assumes the bill will be split evenly with his companions who may have only had one. Also, if someone leaves early before the bill has arrived, it is hard to judge how many benjamins they will have to leave, if the food has been shared.

On the other hand, paying strictly for your own stuff brings its own issues. On numerous occasions when a large group has divided the bill this way, we somehow manage to end up short, and then either try and figure out with great difficulty who has forgotten to pay for something, or chip in extra to cover it. As Thanh points out, it also becomes fuzzy when someone offers to share their dessert with you... what's the etiquette there?

I once had an Italian dinner with some friends and their friends. A couple of people had discount vouchers for that restaurant, which offered 2 meals for the price of 1 or something like that. I kinda assumed they would extend these savings to everyone, in the same way that I had ordered a salad and made it clear that it was for everyone. But no, they spent about 7 minutes (seriously) working out the intricacies of the bill, and ended up paying about 3 bucks each less than me, probably saving about 8 bucks each. I hope all that effort was worth it.

That's a cautionary note for you folks: while you are getting pedantic over the bill, take note of the other people sitting around you getting a bit annoyed. So obviously a degree of sensitivity and magnanimity goes a long way when calculating the bill.

I'm interested in what anyone else has to say on this matter. Are there cultural influences at play? What happens in other countries? What do you do? And most importantly, how can I get away with paying the least amount possible?


  1. if you're really tight and have those 2 for 1 vouchers, what you can do is tell the group you'll pay via credit card and they can pay you in cash. then when you go up to the register present the 2 for 1 without anyone else seeing :)

  2. In my culture, it goes something like this:

    If someone invites you to drink/dinner, he'll pay for it. All of it.

    Now, if it wasn't strictly an invitation, but you just agreed with a friend to go to a restaurant, you'll spend at least 10-20 minutes fighting to be the one who's paying. You have to be persistent and don't take no for an answer.

    If you are a girl going out to a restaurant with other girls- eh, this is tricky. You split the bill, but not evenly. Every girl pays for herself.

    If you ask a girl on a date, you pay for food/drinks. She might disagree with it, but who cares- you are a man and you pay the bill. Later you might kindly remind her you spent your last 1000 dinars (around 10 euros) on her. This will make her angry, because, obviously, she's not a slut and who cares if you payed for dinner- she won't have sex with you. Then you tell her you are not asking for sex- you are asking her to lend you some money so you could buy bus ticket to get back home.