Sunday, August 9th, 2009

Reason for Not Eating Out #34: Check Arithm-ethic

Here comes the check. And there are eight people at the table. But some who ordered appetizers, and some who didn’t. Some who drank eight glasses of wine, some who don’t drink. Some who didn’t eat communal courses due to dietary restrictions, too. How to handle this piece of paper? Pass it around, and see if everyone pays their dues on their own (drunken) accord? Split it up evenly? See if someone decides to be the check calculator, naming the price for each diner? Then, there’s the tip. Do we split up a lump sum percent, or leave it up to each person, and their consideration of the service? How much tip do we leave, anyway?

There are many ways to deal with the grand finale of restaurant outings, when pulling out one’s wallet is required. My favorite is, “Here, I’ll get this one.” But treating for an entire meal is an indulgence that requires deep pockets and faith in your friends — that they’ll do the same another time. It’s easy enough to do when the dinner is for two, but for tables of more mutual friends on no special occasion, it seems to be a dying gentility. Not so long ago, this was more common, and divvying up a check was social taboo. Now, even in wealthy circles, even splitting is more and more the modus operandi. And among my friends, factors like the ones above are increasingly influencing the pay break-up, or at least causing feathers to ruffle.

This is the point when I conveniently make a run to the bathroom. Two years of not eating out has made me extremely rusty at handling such sensitive operations — the sticky arithmetic as well as the social skills surrounding the check. But since re-entering the world of restaurant eating last fall, and encountering the occasional large-group dinner a few times, the landscape has seemed to change somewhat. Or, I completely forgot how miserable it is.

I’m not the only one at the table who’d rather be hands-off; I suspect most people don’t want to wrap their heads around the check, nor care enough about how much they’ll have to pay and whether the calculations will be correct. “Just tell me what I owe,” they say. I’ll call these folks the Loafers.

Then, in any group no matter it’s two or twenty people, there is always a person who steps up to the plate and actually seems to enjoy figuring out the check. The Enforcer, as it were, is a Type A personality and borderline bully. He or she might not be a bully in other, day-to-day atmospheres, or get a chance to exert any power in his or her life and career. He or she probably insisted on those oyster shots for the table, or ordered the most expensive entree. If the latter is true, he or she probably wants to sway the table toward the even split; or in the reverse situation, and this person only had a salad, he or she will attempt to calculate what everyone owes (in disproportion to his or her own tally).

When the Enforcer is at work there are usually a number of Sniffers, whose eyebrows crinkle as they lean in to get a view of the check in his or her hands. The Sniffers are probably wary of the Enforcer for reasons that extend beyond the scope of the meal itself. They are concerned about how much they will pay, and what’s fair for everyone, including the waiter. They may also be checking to see that everyone’s course is rightly accounted for on the bill. They may not have minded being the Enforcer themselves.

In cases where there is no truly zealous Enforcer, then we have the Reluctant Enforcer. This is the best person at math at the table. Or, just the least drunk. And as such, is probably very quiet and un-assertive usually. The Reluctant Enforcer does the deed according to standards and exact calculations, no questions, no personal feelings attached.

Once the check is paid up, a huge weight is lifted from the table. Now we can all relax. We can go back to being ourselves, and not the Loafer, Enforcer, Sniffer or other dining-out alter-egos that may exist in us. We can be the party girl or guy, the intellectual, the freakish foodie, or whoever we normally are – and we can talk about other things! And that’s the way I prefer things to be.

20 Responses to “Reason for Not Eating Out #34: Check Arithm-ethic”

  1. Jennette says:

    I am usually a reluctant enforcer, or a solo calculator who ends up giving way too much in fear, worrying that the tip will come out short. I am also the person who counts the money four times because of this fear.

    This is why I dread group birthday dinners. 5 people or less? I’m in. Otherwise, I’m okay if I am not invited.

  2. Mark says:

    After going to school and living in Holland, I became the master of this challenge — by the way “Dutch Treat” can only be truly understood when eating with a group of Dutch 20-students. Every time you went out, the Dutch diners would calc things to the penny based on their “perception” of their part of the bill and rarely discuss any alternative views.

    In other words, we “rich Americans” always had to make up the difference . And trust me, there was always a rather large difference. Even though we were poor students ourselves, it was never worth the effort to debate the bill allocation with one of the Dutch students… though, I always found the debates and justifications truly entertaining and almost always worth the extra I might have to chip in.

  3. christopher says:

    Ha, I loved this article. An interesting phenomenon in durham/raleigh/chapel hill, nc is that most places automatically split the check per person for any size group. I don’t know if its because we look like poor grad students or if they do it for everyone but it takes so much of the pain out of dining with poor grad students.

  4. Jenny says:

    The worst thing is the secret sniffer. I have been to several meals with a secret sniffer recently. On both occasions, it was decided to evenly split the bill, as everyone had had similar meals. The secret sniffer, however, only pays what they ate, and no tip. She makes out that it is because she doesn’t drink, but she does have a fondness for fillet steak that makes up for the one glass of wine she didn’t have.

    Everytime I go for dinner with her it comes up short, and it drives me MAD!

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  7. xraydj says:

    I enjoyed this post. This is something that I’ve never been able to understand, and especially now that everyone has a calculator on his/her cell phone. Here’s the formula for calculating how much you owe: add up all of the items you purchased, add up the appetizers and divide by the number of people sharing appetizers, then (for NYC diners) multiply by 1.2825 (8.25% tax + 20% tip). Tada! Or rather, just cook for your friends at home — the food’s probably better there anyways.

  8. mei says:

    Thank you thank you thank you. This is the hands down number one WORST part about going out to eat with people, especially since those who order the most expensive things/drink the most ALWAYS want to split the bill, which most people will go along with, for the sake of ease. It’s a terrible, terrible situation, and there really is one or two people who just pay waaaaay more than they should. Every time. And they clamor for it–sometimes the loafers are saving their sanity by not arguing the point…

  9. rebecca says:

    I’m always the Reluctant Enforcer, and I’m also what I call the ‘PANIC PAYER’: I almost always end up being the one to throw more cash at the bill if it seems like an argument is about to break out. The one time I didn’t become the Panic Payer was at a group dinner with 10 people I didn’t know, who all ordered a 3-course meal, a cocktail, and a coffee while my friend and I shared an app and an entree, no drinks – and then the 10 feasters wanted to split the bill evenly. No, sir.

  10. Jean says:

    Oh my god. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud here at my desk. I always hate check time when we put it all on one check. One time was so bad, it was just me, a friend and her little girl. I had a cup of tea and a chicken salad sandwich, and ended up spending 15 dollars when it should have only cost me $7. I somehow ended up splitting the check 50/50. I will never ever do that again! — jean

  11. Irene says:

    Great post and excellent reason! I am the person who never orders alcohol and just gets water to drink, I usually never get dessert and never coffee, and I ALWAYS end up paying more than my actual share. I don’t want to be cheap but sometimes I wish somebody would say “oh but you didn’t have xyz so you shouldn’t pay for that!” My worst experience was going out for a birthday dinner when I had a seven dollar dish and ended up paying $40 because of all the wine!

    I notice this with a group of colleagues as well, but with an interesting twist: everybody wants to split the bill evenly and nobody says anything if they had less than the others – but they totally skimp on the tip!! I am always saying that we need to add more tip, so I feel I get punished twice – first for eating and drinking less, then because I add extra tip. Grrr…

    Mark, your Dutch story was very funny, in my experience it is a very true stereotype! However, I have a question for all of you: when home cooking, do people ever pitch in with money? That is totally normal in my country among young people but not here in the US…

    (I clearly had a lot of grudge on this topic! Feels cathartic to write about it though.)

  12. Angel says:

    My experience echos Irene’s exactly. I too have ended up paying three times what I ate because of what other people ordered. It is unfair that we should have to subsidize everyone else’s meals, but I never speak up because I know I will look cheap and stingy and poison the collaborative atmosphere. It really is unfair, though. I’ve been a student with little income the past few years and when I would go out with others I would have a set amount in mind of what I could afford to spend. I would order something economical and bypass the appetizers and drinks but I would still end up paying for them. I hate that people assume that everyone else can afford to pay more than their share or to pay the higher amount that someone else was willing to pay. Everyone may have a different ability to pay so no one should assume that everyone has the same ceiling. So now when I have the opportunity to attend a group dining outing I have to ask myself whether I can spend $30 or upwards. Sadly, sometimes I have to decline invitations I would otherwise accept because I just cannot afford to subsidize other people’s meals.

    Irene, I have never seen anyone pitch in for a home cooked meal unless it was established ahead of time that the costs would be split. More common, I think, is for the guest to contribute or offer to bring a food or drink item for the host(ess) which is then typically shared at that meal. What country are you from?

  13. Mira8 says:

    Jenny: I think you mean secret stiffer, not sniffer. :)

  14. Chitownie says:

    I don’t like the part of decoding the check – hence I try to eat at home beforehand if I go meet a big group
    At a restaurant. I will never forget a major issue that arose with a large group
    And the restaurant’s refusal to split the checks. I can’t blame them bc it is a pain – but a potluck at home could have served the purpose if fellowship and we could have had more wine, beer, pop, food and laughter

    I also prefer to eat in and try cooking new things at home. I live in a big city too and life is not cheap here so I love your blog bc it is fresh, exciting and intelligent. Keep up the good work!!!!!

  15. LMN says:

    This is a pet peeve of mine, too, so much so that I don’t even go to diners if there is more than 4-6 people there. It’s just too much of a hassle. Especially these days when there can be a very large income disparity around the table- the unemployed, underemployed, and the few who are still carrying on as if it’s 2007!In fact I just turned down a group birthday dinner at a trendy soho spot, I probably would have wound up paying 65$ for a salad and a glass of wine. no thanks!

  16. Chitownie says:

    I paid $20 for a good margarita and GROSS tacos. I could make a better margarita, provide entertainment & make great tacos – so HA

  17. Kynicar says:

    I’ve definitely run into this problem in the past… So now, whenever we (or just me, if having a girl’s night) go out, we always tell the waiter that we want a separate check right before we order. We don’t drink, hardly ever get an appetizer or dessert, and definitely don’t think it’s fair to have to pay for someone else’s gluttony. So, I just don’t care if I look stingy, and I don’t care what my friends think and ask for the separate check anyway. If it’s a birthday, I’ll make sure to also bring cash in case we end up paying for the bday person’s meal.

  18. roxie says:

    I will usally get a seprate bill no matter who im with. On the rare time I do split something with someone we work out what the cost will be, whos tab it will be on and that person pays their haif right then and there. It works out really well.

  19. Herbert says:

    On the very rare (i.e once yearly) occasions that my friends and myself eat out everyone pays for what they have had, the tip is split evenly. Its the most straight forward system but can be hampared if members of the party are dishonest or if the restaurant adds on tax/service charge that wasn’t included in the prices shown on the menu (on a recent visit to India I found that practice endemic).

  20. Kay Shepherd says:

    I rarely go out to eat with anyone other than my husband, so it’s not usually an issue. Once in a while, my work group goes out for an office lunch. The restaurant we usually go to does not split checks, so my boss picks up the tab and everyone pays him later. We have a small group and it works for us.

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