Etiquette: Who pays for dinner in this situation?
July 15, 2005 12:18 AM   Subscribe

EtiquetteFilter: I'm going to dinner with a friend of mine tomorrow evening. It was also my birthday last weekend and my friend was out of town at the time. So, I have a hunch that he may offer to pay for dinner because of, you know, the birthday thing. Here's the twist -- he was laid off about two weeks ago...

So, I've been thinking that maybe I'd like to pay for dinner (since he's unemployed and probably has more important things to spend his money on). However, considering the moderate likelihood that he may be planning on paying for dinner, would that be a disrespectful gesture on my part?
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (25 answers total)
I don't think it would be disrespectful at all for you to pay.
Think of seeing your friend as the gift.
When it comes time to pay though it would be tactful not to make a big deal of it as your friend might get embarrassed.
posted by sconbie at 12:36 AM on July 15, 2005

Your friend probably has a decent wad of cash right now. Severance, unused vacation, etc. Also, 401k deductions are usually skipped for the final paycheck. Don't worry about it unless you plan to take him to Chez Escroquerie.
posted by ryanrs at 1:09 AM on July 15, 2005

This kind of thing comes up all the time in England, where everyone is trying to out-do the other in terms of politeness. A good compromise would be to allow your friend to pay the bill, if he offers, but you should pay the tip and any drinks before and after the meal.
posted by skylar at 2:10 AM on July 15, 2005

Yeah, but he may have to live on that wad of cash for a while. I think anon's impulse to pay is a good one.

Here's a thought: have dinner at your place, telling him you just don't feel like going out. If you don't want to cook, order out from somewhere nice before he ever gets there. Pick up a little cake from the bakery, and after dinner serve it, saying you wanted to have your own birthday party with him since he missed your big day.

If this isn't possible because you've made reservations or you can't get it together or something, take enough cash to cover the bill, then find a way to get away from the table as the dinner's ending and slip it to the waiter or host. When your friend asks about the check, just tell him it's taken care of. Make it casual -- oh, I met the waiter as he was about to give us the check, so I just paid it so we could get out of here. If he offers to give you money, just ask him to buy next time. And make sure next time is after he finds a job.

If worse comes to worse and the check arrives at your table before you can pay, if he offers, accept with grace. Say nothing about his circumstances. You can find other ways to look out for him, but that's not the moment to try.
posted by melissa may at 2:24 AM on July 15, 2005

Would it be completely gauche to just say, "Hey, you've just lost your job, I don't really feel comfortable with you paying all of the bill..." or something like that and then offer to pay it or split it or say that he can pay next time? I mean, you're friends, and he knows you know he's just lost his job, so wouldn't it be more awkward to try to avoid the subject? I'm not saying get into a big conversation about it and if insists then let him pay, but everyone goes through these things at some point and it just seems a bit silly to me to make it a big issue.

(I'm willing to admit I may be in the wrong here - since most of my friends are students/20-somethings, so talking about crappy jobs and having no money is no big deal. Also, I'm in the UK, so perhaps the etiquette is very different in the US and elsewhere.)
posted by speranza at 2:45 AM on July 15, 2005

Can you get in first with setting up a tab against your card at wherever you're having dinner? It might give you a better position to argue against letting him pay the whole thing when it comes to the end of the meal.
posted by biffa at 3:08 AM on July 15, 2005

Don't pay.

Let him be gracious (if he is.) Two weeks from now, better yet, six to ten weeks from now, if he's still out of work, do something gracious - buy him dinner, a weeks worth of groceries etc.

Let your friend do right by you now...and then do right by him later.
posted by filmgeek at 3:24 AM on July 15, 2005

Firstly, enjoy the dinner with your friend. When it's time to pay the bill maybe you can suggest you "go dutch". If he insists, like others have said don't make a big deal about it so as not to embarrass him, thank him for the evening and next time, take him out for a drink or brunch.
posted by Chimp at 3:45 AM on July 15, 2005

Or try fixing it so you go somewhere fun but very cheap?
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:21 AM on July 15, 2005

I would act as though you intend to pay and pay if he lets you. If he says he wants to treat you for your birthday, let him. Then as filmgeek suggests, replace the expense somehow at a later date by doing something for him. And yes, obviously don't suddenly be in the mood for something expensive that night.
posted by duck at 5:31 AM on July 15, 2005

If you have control of the plans, try to go someplace inexpensive.

If he offers to pay the whole bill, I think you shouldn't offer to pay the whole thing yourself, because that would be a bit off-putting. But say, at least twice, that you will pay your share of the bill. If he still insists, then let him. He knows more about his financial situation than you do. On the flip side, if you get your hands on the bill first and say 'I'll get this...', then if you have to negotiate down to dutch-treat, at least he's only paying for his half of the meal.

The follow filmgeek's advice and buy him dinner in a few weeks when he might need the money more.

If you're very good friends, a situation like this can be defused with humour. I'd invited a few of my friends out for dinner with the full intention of hosting them for dinner, and when the bill came, they protested. Coincidentally at that time, one of them was waiting for her job as a teacher to start, one was a law student who was at bar school, and one was a sys admin who was looking for a new job after a move. Because they were close friends and we had all already talked about the situation and because I knew them well, I was able to jokingly say 'Everyone at the table who has a job, raise your hands!' and claim the cheque on that score.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:32 AM on July 15, 2005

I would think if your friend wants to pay dinner as a birthday treat, then let him. Offer to pay without mentioning the job layoff, but if he insists, don't push it. In a similar situation, I'd be embarassed if I wasn't permitted to take care of a gift when I offered; then it's like, I was going to do something to make us both feel good (I give a gift, you receive a gift), but now I just feel poor and pitied; and I still feel obligated to give you something, but now it's like I owe you for "taking care of me", and I'll have to go find or do something else for you, which is a pain since this (paying for dinner) is how I intended to discharge the obligation. Worse is the idea that the other person thinks I am using my fianancial circumstances to actively provoke pity and get myself "off the hook", which isn't at all my intention, and so they pay, but it feels grudging, and I'm so embarassed because I fully intended to pay and they won't let me.

skylar's suggestion to take care of tips and drinks is a good one; and I agree with filmgeek that you should let him be gracious now, and you can return the graciousness later.
posted by Melinika at 5:46 AM on July 15, 2005

I think it would be a great idea to let him pay now and you hook him up later. After the thrill of having lots of cash is gone, it is hard to tell your friends that since you have been out of work for so long, you can't afford to go out and have fun with them. That's when you return the favor of a night out on your dime, when he can longer afford it himself and doesn't want to admit it. It's a win-win - he feels good about gifting now and he feels good about receiving later. You feel good about receiving now and gifting later. Just make sure you tell him at dinner that next time out is on you and reiterate it when you call to set up the next round. Though it is a good idea to have the cash to pay, just in case.
posted by blackkar at 6:25 AM on July 15, 2005

Damn, melissa may -- thats some super-powered tact! I could make a meal of your class... you're the second melissa today who's made a good suggestion on AskMefi.
posted by jruckman at 6:33 AM on July 15, 2005

... IMHO, of course.
posted by jruckman at 6:33 AM on July 15, 2005

Absolutely let him pay if he tries to. Get the tip, etc. Treat him to something in the near future. Losing a job makes a person feel like a bit of a, well, loser; I wouldn't want to compound that feeling by implying he now can't afford to treat for one dinner out.
posted by gai at 6:35 AM on July 15, 2005

I agree with Melinka, especially this bit:

"I was going to do something to make us both feel good (I give a gift, you receive a gift), but now I just feel poor and pitied."
posted by smackfu at 6:43 AM on July 15, 2005

Let him pay as the self-esteem issues may well trump the money issues for him at this point. Later, set up going to his house to make dinner for him, show up with too many groceries, cook dinner, conveniently leave groceries for your broke friend.
posted by OmieWise at 7:20 AM on July 15, 2005

while I totally respect melissa may in general, I honestly would be a little uncomfortable if someone went to that much trouble to control my ability to give him a gift. It wouldn't be a huge deal, but I would read it as a need to be in control. At the same time, if you think he's paying because he feels obliged, not because it makes him feel good to give you a gift which he has reason to believe he can afford despite not being in the most prime situation financially, then it'd be nice to make sure he knows you don't care. So offer to pay, offer to pay your part, make it clear all you care about is getting to hang out, not who pays the bill, but if it seems like something he really wants to do, then let him. He's a grown up. Thank him for the gift.

I think it's important to know how to be generous and also to know how to accept generosity from others when it is sincerely offered. It's true we get muddled up in the whole politeness of offering and counter-offering and sometimes insincere offering, but in the end, a gift makes both the giver & recipient feel good, and it's good to be equally capable of playing both parts.
posted by mdn at 7:52 AM on July 15, 2005

If I wanted to take a friend out for dinner, and they went to extreme premeditated measures to make it hard for me to pay, I would feel bad. If it was supposed to be their birthday dinner and they did all that, I'd feel insulted. If their reasoning (stated or implied) was that I was unemployed, I'd feel pathetic.

It's not gracious to unravel someone else's nicenesses. If you want to be a good friend in his time of need, then return the favor after the fact, don't try and dissolve it from the get-go.
posted by 23skidoo at 8:24 AM on July 15, 2005

I think Melissa's advice is insulting. If you insist on trying to pay, don't do it behind his back. It's patronizing -- and you'll worsen the effect by attempting some coy quip about bumping into the waiter on your way to the restroom.

Chalk me down as, "Let him pay." I agree with the other reasons provided, plus: You're friends, not married. His wallet is none of your business.
posted by cribcage at 10:08 AM on July 15, 2005

If he offers to pay for both of you, let him. He's a grown-up and is in charge of his own finances. If he wants to make a sacrifice to take a good friend out for his birthday, he can do that. Money is such a subjective issue- I may feel that I don't have enough money to eat out but I might go to a movie, spend more on groceries or divide my budget in a way that you might not agree with. People reflect their values in how they spend their money- if he is trying to be a good friend to you, it matters to him, so please let him.

If he obviously isn't going to pay for both of you, you have two options: let him pay his share, or, if you are feeling like you really need to help him out, pick up the tab, saying it's a thank you for some thing he did for you in the recent past.
posted by wallaby at 10:44 AM on July 15, 2005

There is some really good advice in this thread, and you can decide which case best applies to you and your friend's relationship, which is a bit of the puzzle that we can't really know.

In general, my advice would be to not bring up his situation as an excuse for treating or splitting. Also, I wouldn't suggest paying for the bill without him knowing, that comes off more as sneaky than doing a favor. Maybe he has decided that he can't afford to pay for everything and now, rather than him being able to bring it up, you have undercut him.

If I was in the situation, I would say something like "I really wanted to get together for dinner, let's just split it/I'll get this one". Also, the tips and drinks suggestion from above is excellent.

It really boils down to what you feel comfortable with, then considering how you would feel if you were in his situation. Would you feel comfortable if he insisted on paying for his bday dinner? If not, he probably wouldn't either. If so, then your relationship will be fineif you grab the check.

Above all, keep it friendly and cheerful, not a somber, "I know you lost your job..."
posted by jonah at 11:14 AM on July 15, 2005

I think I agree with jonah, though I was initially going to recommend melissa may's solution, because it's an old trick in my family: sneak off when everyone's finishing their dessert or sipping their coffee (on the pretext of visiting the restroom), make a quick and quiet transaction out of sight/hearing of your table, and return without saying a word. At the appropriate time, say "Well, we should get going," and when somebody says "We have to pay the bill," either you or a smiling waiter says "It's already taken care of." Zing! It's especially fun when two or more aficionados of this technique are at the table, each scheming to get away with it first. But I have to agree that it may not be appropriate in this context.
posted by languagehat at 12:43 PM on July 15, 2005

Well, I wasn't trying to be insulting or controlling at all! If the question had been "My friend promised to take me to dinner, but lost his job since" instead of "My friend who is going through a rocky financial time might feel obligated to buy me dinner" my advice would certainly have been different. I hate that end of the meal check Alphonse and Gaston dance in general -- for me, it's the worse thing about going out to eat -- and it's only worse when you're dancing over a check you can't afford to pay.

After reading all the answers, though, the aggregate advice of the thread is really far better than mine -- it's more important to let your friend be generous than take away his power to be so, even with the best of intentions. So I hope you struck my answer from the record, dear anon, and enjoyed your evening with your friend.
posted by melissa may at 8:34 PM on July 15, 2005

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