Thursday, February 17, 2011

Who Pays?

Dear Grace,
I was recently invited to lunch with a business contact. I called her since I was going to be near her office and suggested meeting for coffee. She responded, "Can you make it a bit earlier so I can take you to lunch?". Those were her exact words, so I assumed that she was treating (was I correct?). We ate, and when the server left the check on the table, my companion ignored it. She did not reach for it, or indicate that she was even aware of its existence, but just kept on with her conversation. I was uncomfortable--and after what seemed like ages--coffee drunk, server having asked twice if we needed anything else, and once if the bill was ready, I reached for my wallet. At that point, my "host" said, "No, lunch is on me." and picked up the tab. All's well that ends well, I guess, but I felt really awkward. What do you think of this scenario and how do I avoid it in the future?

Grace says:

Ah, the bill. It certainly can be a landmine.

I'll tackle your questions in order: First, yes, you were correct in assuming that "take you to lunch" implies that the speaker is paying. It is not an offer to shuttle you to a deli but rather to cover the cost of both of your meals. Conversely, if the quote was "let's meet for lunch" "get together for lunch" or "have lunch" then the presumption is that you will split the bill. If, however, the bill arrives and your companion insists on treating, then it is Gracious to let her. (This assumes no underlying complications, like the companion is a compulsive spender, or she is trying to butter you up so you will lend her your Prada shoes, and also assumes that a prompt and sincere thank you and reciprocation will be implemented pronto.)

Secondly, what I think of the scenario quote you (and Shakespeare) "all's well that ends well." Maybe the speaker is incapable of multi-tasking and your conversation was so engrossing that she couldn't focus on anything else. Maybe she was raised with a ban on transactions during mealtime and forbidden to conduct commerce until the meal and its accompanying social interaction was concluded. Maybe she wanted to make you sweat a bit. But ultimately, she did the right thing.

Finally, in terms of future prevention you have a few options:
  • Wait it out. While you suffered some awkwardness in this situation, ultimately you are no worse for the wear. Admittedly, though, as lunch becomes afternoon tea, you may want to take steps to expedite the payment and curtail your discomfort around it.
  • If so, reach for the check when it arrives. This will certainly clarify things. Do note, however, that if you pick it up, you might be stuck with it. You may wish to comment, "Shall we split this?" as you reach to prevent a chunk of your cash being dropped on the table.
  • By far the most Gracious conduct is for the person who issued the invite and therefore is expected to pay to reach for the check and slide it towards her as soon as it arrives. Even if she has no intention of sorting it out at that very moment, it conveys to the other diners that she will be paying and prevents the confusion and discomfort that you suffered.
Check this clip, poor guy got snookered into paying......again.

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