I actually do take 'No' for an answer, so... ?
November 9, 2011 1:49 PM   Subscribe

Can you fill me in a little on the politics of "picking up the check" when going out with co-workers? (it isn't as simple as I'd thought)

This might be in the ask/guess culture realm or something; I really don't know for sure.

I have a couple of co-workers who absolutely refuse to allow me to pay for the tab when we go to lunch or happy hour together. I'm 33, and both coworkers in question are around 50. I'm also an East-Coast native & recent transplant to this, Seattle, office.

My thinking is that Guess Culture tends to be more appropriate in more intimate and more familiar relationships (presumably because it's in those relationships where your guess has a better chance of hitting the mark, but anyway),

I hence tend to take this sort of situation from the "Ask Culture" perspective:
If you say, "I'll get the check," I take it you mean it.
If I say "I'll get the check," I mean it.
If you say "no, I'll get it," I take it you mean that too.

From that point, for me to counter with a somehow ostensibly less ambiguously empirical "NO. ME GET IT! ME-ee!" is outright incoherent to me.

Hence, we both can gauge things so that we each pay about half, I would think. Each of us offers about half the time, etc. (my friends/family, for instance, get this, and it works just fine) ...But for some reason, it doesn't seem to work that way with my co-workers. Here's the most recent example, for some clarity on what I'm talking about:

Details on coworker in question: I'm male, she's female; I'm about 33, have girlfriend; she's about 50, has husband-- never any flirting involved; she's actually kind of like an aunt to me, very straightforward and friendly, yet not over-talkative or overbearing.

So it was her birthday, a Monday, and I bowed out of the lunch (just folks going to a restaurant for a long lunch to celebrate) because I was getting over a nasty cold. I emailed her and said that I'd like to buy her lunch on Friday-- so I could recover some more and such.

She accepted-- also by email-- but specified that she would like to pay for her own lunch. No big deal to me-- again, an "ask" culture thing.

So on Thursday, she told me that "we" (her and I didn't know who) were going to take me out to lunch, because I'm "the new guy" (I'm the most recent addition to the office). Again, rollin' with it O.G. Ask-Kultcha style, I accepted. When we went out the next day, she specified to the waitress to please put my meal on her bill.

By this point, I felt like Ask Culture had handed me a beating. On Monday I'd originally offered to pay for her lunch, and by Friday she managed to credit me two lunches by handing the offer back and paying for mine. (*wobbles wearily)

Another co-worker, same stats, insists on paying unless I all-but physically tackle the server with my card in hand, and no amount of protesting on my part can change things.

My question is:
How much of a "I'll get it"/"No-- I'll get it"/"No..." joust should one step up to?

Alternately, is it even possible that my Ask Culture colors can maintain this free-lunch series indefinitely? I'm not comfortable with that, but I assure you I'm also not at all comfortable straining my overall sense of how to communicate with people (not to the extent that these folks are apparently requiring, anyway).
posted by herbplarfegan to Human Relations (27 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Many people follow a rule that the significantly older person pays. She's 50 and you're 33, so she might be following this rule. Someday, you'll be in your 50s and paying for coworkers in their 30s, so it'll even out in the end.
posted by John Cohen at 1:51 PM on November 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

So.. if they absolutely insist on buying you lunch.. let them. I know that sounds kind of selfish and it might seem like you're taking advantage.. but some people just absolutely must be the meal payer for. I don't know why.

The only way I've been able to combat them is to say: Hey, next time we do lunch, I'm paying. Okay?

Or to get a hold of the check/tell the waitress/pull my card out first.

otherwise I just buy them gift cards to their favorite restaurants.
posted by royalsong at 1:55 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think a "no, I insist" might have fixed this after she specified that she would like to pay for her own lunch.


You: I'm buying you lunch on Friday, Susanne.
Susanne: I'd love to go, but I'll pay for my share.
You: No, I insist. Let me take you out for lunch on Friday to celebrate.

Her response to that might have helped you figure out what her motivation is. And if she demurred, and then still managed to pay after that, then I'd say it's not an ask culture you're having trouble with, it's probably a generational thing.
posted by lydhre at 1:55 PM on November 9, 2011

I am totally baffled by your "Ask Culture" vs. "Guess Culture" distinction. Could you provide references on this? FYI, I was born in the American Midwest and have lived most of my 43 years in the Midwest and New England, except for some time off for good behavior in the UK, Germany, and France. But the ask vs. guess culture thing is completely new to me. As a cultural historian, I think I know what you mean, but it is not a distinction with which I'm familiar. I know shame culture vs. guilt culture, but that's something else entirely.

I'm also puzzled by this excerpt from your post:
If I say "I'll get the check," I mean it.
If you say "no, I'll get it," I take it you mean that too.
OK, you mean you will pay, and the person you are talking to says no, they will pay. Why don't you respond, "No, this time I insist?" If you both say and mean that you will pay it, you've got to negotiate, right? Otherwise you might come across as someone who says something (i.e., I will pay this time) but doesn't really mean it (because you give in as soon as the other person says they will).
posted by brianogilvie at 1:57 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

After posting: both royalsong and lydhre have good points. With my father-in-law, my wife and I have had to take to arranging surreptitiously to pick up the check. (It was the same with my dad before he died.) With work colleagues, though, I just insist on reciprocity; if my colleague paid for drinks last time, I'll pay for them this time.
posted by brianogilvie at 2:01 PM on November 9, 2011

When I am in similar situations I give in pretty quickly, but make it a point to invite the other party out to lunch or whatever specifying in advance that I will pay or bring breakfast food, lunch, or other goodies to the office so I don't feel like a mooch. Also if the co-workers are significantly older they may have seniority and significantly larger paychecks than you and would feel guilty if you paid; I make a lot more than some of my friends and try to get the check whenever I can, although if they insist on paying I let them.
posted by TedW at 2:01 PM on November 9, 2011

I am totally baffled by your "Ask Culture" vs. "Guess Culture" distinction.

I know, I had to Google that. This helps, as does this. Mostly. (I first assumed the question asker was in a cult. Heh!)

That's actually all irrelevant to the matter at hand actually.

If you want to pick up the check, you slip the server your card well before an actual check arrives. If you want to split it, say "I'd love to split this." If they express that they want to pay, you protest a little and let them pay, or suggest you split and then give up. Then NEVER THINK ABOUT IT AGAIN.

(I'm presuming that this is mostly American-raised people in Seattle, not people from, say, Mexico or Japan, where "no" or "please" can often mean a lot of different things to what U.S. people would think.)
posted by RJ Reynolds at 2:03 PM on November 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yeah, this is an older/younger thing. It's very very rare that an older family member or coworker will allow me to treat them to lunch, and often they won't even allow me to pay for my portion. I think it just comes from a place of "I'm much more financially comfortable than you, and this is such a tiny expense to me that I insist on paying."
posted by MsMolly at 2:05 PM on November 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

Similar to what other people have said - in my experience the senior person at the meal usually wants to pick up the check. I generally say "oh, ok, thanks!" and try to do something for the whole team like bring in bagels or something, but I am also very broke and younger than you, so I don't know if relative ages has anything to do with it. Also if the person says they want to pay and still pushes back after I offer instead I usually just roll with it. If they're being passive aggressive about it that's their deal (not saying that's the case here).
posted by brilliantine at 2:08 PM on November 9, 2011

Senior person always picks up the check. When I first started working I bought my boss a coffee and she said "when your employees buy you stuff, you are paying them too much". It gets a bit more complex after that. If there is a vendor involved, the vendor always pays. If there are two people of equal level, say two VPs, they will figure out who can expense it and get away with it. If you are out with a senior manager and they let you buy rounds, it means you made the leap from work-friend to friend-friend.
posted by Ad hominem at 2:09 PM on November 9, 2011 [6 favorites]

I think you are getting too involved in this ask/guess thing, and trying to put people and situations in these categories is obscuring the easy path to a solution. You can say this, at the table or in an email beforehand: "Thanks for offering to pay, but I'm starting to feel like I'm taking advantage. I'd prefer that we go dutch when we're out."
posted by Houstonian at 2:09 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thirding/fourthing that this isn't really an ask vs. guess thing, but rather a clash of cultural expectations. My mom and I have this same battle all the time - she absolutely refuses to let me pay for meals (I am 27 and probably make more money than she does) and will come up with every excuse to "let me off the hook" (oh, we got that wine; oh my meal was more expensive; I already have my wallet out, etc etc etc).

You expect to split meals evenly, back and forth so that you don't have to split the check. She expects to treat you because she is older (and possibly because of gender - she might think it's improper to be treated by a man who's not her husband, doubly so by a younger man).

In the future, it might be best just to insist on splitting the check.
posted by muddgirl at 2:13 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

How much of a "I'll get it"/"No-- I'll get it"/"No..." joust should one step up to?

Tell the waitress when you order, "Separate checks, please" and avoid the problem entirely.
Call the current who-owes-who a wash and start new.
posted by madajb at 2:15 PM on November 9, 2011

I think "senior person always picks up the check" is too simple, though. I'm in academe, where if you're on the tenure track, and especially once you get tenure, "senior" really doesn't mean anything other than "older." There's no hierarchical distinction (in my case); insofar as we have a boss, they're not in our department. (I wouldn't pay for lunch with the dean, if it were a business lunch, but if we met for drinks, to talk about our mutual research interests in early modern European culture, I might offer to pick them up.)

Other work cultures are much more hierarchical (including other academic institutions). In that case, you might want to approach a friendly informant, maybe in another department if you can find one, and ask them what seems appropriate.
posted by brianogilvie at 2:15 PM on November 9, 2011

Yeah, sorry I didn't post that link myself-- thank you, RJ_Reynolds.

The age thing clarifies this a lot-- now that I think o' it, I remember insisting once that I pay for some snacks for myself and my girlfriend's uncle; I managed to land some dough in the cashier's paw first, and he was sorta furious (the uncle, not the cashier).
posted by herbplarfegan at 2:15 PM on November 9, 2011

Don't assume it's a sacrifice. The senior colleague may, as a result of rank or length of service, be able to have the cost of the meal reimbursed, even if that's not open to you as a matter of policy.
posted by MattD at 2:25 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

This likely will change after you've been there a while. Sounds like this might be a place where people like to treat 'the new guy' to make him feel welcome but after a while, you will begin to receive signals about how you're expected to participate. When next someone says, "we're taking xyz for lunch to celebrate 'big deal'" or asks you to sign the card for abc's special occasion gift, then you ask about how to join in, help with the cost, etc.

This probably isn't sinister at all. Older, more senior people sometimes like to make a little gesture like this because they remember that a person makes less money at the beginning and has extra expense starting up a new job and they just want to welcome you. Just remember, as you get older yourself, to pay it forward.

Congratulations on the new job!
posted by Anitanola at 3:05 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Definitely a generation thing. I'm well established and definitely not a youngster, but I still have some "senior" colleagues and family members who actually take offense if I manage to grab a check they planned to pick up.

One approach that usually works for me after one round of "I've got it," "No, it's my turn," "No, I insist" is to offer with a pleading smile, "Well, then, will you at least let me get the tip?"

I'm rarely refused, I feel like I've contributed and my host still gets to feel magnanimous. (And I can make sure the server is well rewarded according to today's standards, not the standards of the 1950s.)
posted by peakcomm at 3:28 PM on November 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

This is coming from a different perspective.... I'm at the senior management level, and the idea of someone who I supervise and makes less money than me paying for MY meal makes me really uncomfortable. I'm assuming this would be a casual lunch.

If it's a business-related meal (i.e. I'm with a co-worker at a meeting outside of town), then I will always pay for our because I get reimbursed by the company anyway and I have a company credit card.

Unless it's my birthday or my 45th work anniversary or so other stupendous occasion, of course. Then heck yeah! I'd gladly take you up on your offer.
posted by HeyAllie at 3:33 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Last time I went out for a meal with my in-laws, I deliberately snuck and paid the bill when they weren't looking, at which my father in law took offense and then later hid the cash in my house before he left.

The "senior person pays" tradition might be especially important to your colleague, because it's likely that she remembers a time (and has worked in a workplace) where as a woman she would automatically be your junior. Making this kind of statement of seniority with more junior men is a relatively pleasant way of making sure things start off on the right foot, which in my experience is necessary more often than it should be.

In general, I think paying the bill for a group is often a statement of power of some kind - besides of course being a very generous thing to do.
posted by emilyw at 3:40 PM on November 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

How about just saying thanks. Bring them a nice coffee and bagel one morning.

It feels good to buy someone lunch. Let them have it. After awhile, they will let you pick up the tab sometimes.
posted by myselfasme at 4:15 PM on November 9, 2011

I hate the whole "I'll pay, no I'll pay, no really I'll pay" dance that some people seem to expect.

With my parents (who refuse to let me or my brother pay for anything) I have on some occasions done the whole "Just going to the bathroom" towards the end of the mean, spoken to a waiter out of sight , given him my credit card and told him that I'm paying.

However I did that once with a friend of my wifes (my wife and I spoke about it beforehand and agreed it was the right thing to do) and her husband was NOT IMPRESSED.

With colleagues... I would try to subtly find out if its the norm... go for drinks and ask whats happened to other people etc. But the fact you see her in an "Aunt" style role means she probably see's you in a "nephew" style role and I know my Aunts always try to pay for me.

Also if we are talking other cultures its totally different. My wife is from Mexico, and there from what I can gather if someone invites you somewhere, they are paying. I'm currently living in the Philippines where its another kettle of fish entirely...
posted by Admira at 5:24 PM on November 9, 2011

OMG! Say "Thank you" graciously and offer (demand!) to get the tip!! That's how we roll.

Your co-worker offered because (a) they are older and presumably have more disposal income (b) you are the "new guy" and (c) they invited a third party and did not want you to feel obligated to pay for both.

Socially, your co-worker was spot-on. Including inviting the third party to join:)

Annnd, that's how you learn the social graces, friend. What a great experience!
posted by jbenben at 5:25 PM on November 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

My personal rule of thumb - developed in a family where people say what they mean and refined with in-laws who feel they have to insist - is
(1) to offer to pay, if they say "no, let me do it" then
(2) I repeat my offer "that's OK. I'll get it this time, you can get it next time" if they repeat that they want to pay, then I let them pay (no third offer from me), say thank you and offer to pay next time.

If this is the next time, then when I repeat my offer I would say "No, really. You paid last time, let me get this" If they still insisted, it would depend on our relationship. if I felt comfortable, I might say "Thanks, that is very generous" or if it felt like a power thing, I might try offering a third time or taking care of the bill ahead of time we ate together again.
posted by metahawk at 7:32 PM on November 9, 2011

We play credit card roulette to pay for lunches at work. This is how it works:

You collect a credit card from each diner. One person shuffles the cards and splits them into two (mostly) even piles. This is done under the table so the cards aren't visible. Someone chooses a non-paying hand. Those cards are returned to their owners. The remaining pile is reshuffled and the process is repeated until one card is left. The owner of that card pays for lunch.

It avoids awkward social situations for the most part, and is fun.

If it's actually a business lunch, and not just lunch with co-workers, then the most senior employee pays (and expenses the bill later).

This doesn't help with your social dilemma exactly, but it seemed like a good place to share.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:34 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm with jbenben, including on the front of the tip that it may have been perceived as a little odd that you invited your senior colleague out for a lunch post- group celebrations. May have been interpreted as an attempt to justify one-on-one time - nothing sinister about it, but the inviting this third party and making it a 'welcome to the work place' thing she seems to be subtly reinforcing a dynamic- you are junior (thus she pays, not you)and you are in a professional relationship(thus you do not go out for private birthday lunches). She is not rejecting your kind offer but still making it more on her terms.

Of course, this may not be how she felt. But it's how I would like to think a very socially adept version of myself would respond to your request- with just a delicate realigning of the status quo.
posted by jojobobo at 11:33 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm so glad I bring my lunch and eat at my desk.
posted by CathyG at 12:23 PM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

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