Never in my life did I think my son share/split...the restaurant tab
June 14, 2014 8:59 AM   Subscribe

Indians of me-fi: is it commonly accepted etiquette that splitting a restaurant bill with Indian parents is an insult?

Mr. Mitt's (Indian) parents have been in town for over a week and last night we experienced, without a doubt, the strangest meltdown ever. (as an FYI: mr. mitt was born in india, but has lived in the US for thirty years, since early childhood)

The four of us were making a long drive back to our house and we decided to stop for dinner. The restaurant we chose ended up being a little pricier than we expected, so instead of burdening them to pay for everything, we recommended that we split the bill. Dinner seemed to go by without issue, but right before we left his mother snatched the itemized bill from the credit card holder, folded it up and put it in her purse. we made no note of it. Then they stopped speaking to us after the meal was over.

Less than ten minutes later we are on the road and his mom started crying. Unsure of what was going on, we asked why she was crying and were bombarded with straight-on hysterics. "We are your parents! Never in my life did I think my son would share/split!" Then she couldn't stop sobbing. We were so confused. We didn't know if they thought we were splitting the relationship, because why would ever think they were upset that we split the bill? We asked for clarification because we were both flabbergasted. His father started repeating ad nauseum that with friends it was okay (to split the bill), but never with parents. His mom then said (what i believe was the most hateful thing she could say at the moment) that he was too American...which is funny b/c everyone in the car is an American citizen, which is all it takes to be American.

So, two questions:

1. is it a well-known, commonly accepted rule that you don't split the bill with Indian parents (who have lived in the states for 30 years)
2. is it a well-known, commonly accepted rule that if you do attempt to split the bill in Indian culture that the oldest male at the table pays? (This is the only research I've been able to pull up on the subject this morning.)

This is the largest of so many snowflakes from this week, and we would be grateful for any insight.
posted by ovenmitt to Human Relations (32 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
My parents came to the US from India over 30 years ago and are citizens. They're probably much more Westernized than a lot of Indian parents, as are their friends, just based on the popular view of Indian immigrants in America which I never related that much to, so take that grain of salt.

But, no, it's not a well known commonly accepted rule that you don't split the bill - but - in my opinion - if they offered the nice thing to do would be to accept, culturally. My parents generally assume they'll pay for most things when they visit, but they are also pretty affluent so for most of my 20s it would be sort of silly for me to pay for things that were a drop in the bucket for them while I was still getting my feet. Now that I'm older, they probably push money on me more than other American parents but it's more even, if I pay for something they don't really mind.

As far as oldest male at the table - never heard of that. Instead of researching online about this and asking about generic customs, I think it would be good to talk to mr mitt about how he's feeling and what kinds of conversations he's had in the past with them about this. Families are different, even within "traditional" cultures, and I think it would be good to treat this as something going on within your specific family.

The crying/hysterics seems overboard to me. There isn't any cultural norm that teaches people to give the silent treatment/freak out/etc.
posted by sweetkid at 9:16 AM on June 14, 2014 [7 favorites]

Indian family culture really varies wildly from family to family, but as an (American-born) Indian, here's my guess....

You thought the bill was expensive, so you offered to help the parents pay for it by splitting it. This could have been taken as an insult; by doing so you insinuated that the parents couldn't afford it. Indian-American parents pride themselves on being able to provide for their children; immigrating from India and starting a new life in the US is really challenging, and so a lot of the strength required to succeed is built on the pride derived from the belief that in doing so you are providing for your children and future generations of your family.

So splitting the bill could have been a little humiliating and belittling for them. Perhaps what would have been better is to either pay the whole bill (grown son providing for parents in gratitude) or just sit down and let Dad pay because Indian parents adore their children and them paying for dinner is really no big deal.

(Also maybe influencing this is the fact that traditionally, Indians eat family style; entrees are all set out on the table and everyone shares everything. Splitting the bill doesn't really mesh with sharing food.)

That said, I wouldn't really take it to heart. This was nothing malicious or really awful. Put this behind you, tread lightly, be nice, and they'll move on.
posted by krakus at 9:20 AM on June 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

As an American, I think splitting the bill for a meal with one's parents is odd. Either you should pay or they should pay. Splitting the bill seems adds a weird transactional aspect to what one would hope is a family affair.
posted by grouse at 9:21 AM on June 14, 2014 [22 favorites]

I can't speak to Indian culture, and I would be a little careful about the assumption that there is a single, monolithic Indian culture. I also think that there's a possibility that there's other stuff going on. Mr. Mitt's offer to split the check could have signaled a change in their relationship that they find scary, for instance. Does that mean that he sees himself as independent and equal and doesn't need them anymore? It's also possible that they're having financial issues that they haven't discussed with Mr. Mitt, and his offer triggered anxiety about that.

But I think this is naive, or maybe tone-deaf:
His mom then said (what i believe was the most hateful thing she could say at the moment) that he was too American...which is funny b/c everyone in the car is an American citizen, which is all it takes to be American.
They're not talking about a citizenship definition of "American." They're talking about a cultural definition. And it's pretty common for immigrant parents to have cultural conflicts with their American-raised children. It's also common for American-raised children to feel some tension between their parents' expectations and assumptions and the expectations and assumptions of mainstream American culture. I think it might be helpful to Mr. Mitt if you would at least acknowledge the possibility and legitimacy of such conflict, because it's a real thing, and it's probably going to affect your relationship. It isn't necessarily going to affect your relationship in a bad way: I think my mom came to really value some things about my dad's parents' immigrant culture, in part because she approached it with a lot of respect and curiosity. But it was a thing, and I don't think it would have helped matters if my mom had denied it because everyone involved was an American citizen.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:23 AM on June 14, 2014 [27 favorites]

This sounds to me like an issue that is way bigger than just splitting a bill. If I had to take a guess, Mrs. Mitt was tired and had an unconscious negative reaction to the fact that her son is growing up, not to mention growing up in a different culture than she did.

Also, FWIW, I'm 30 years old and both my (American) parents and my (American) in-laws are very uncomfortable with letting MuddDude or I pick up the check at all, much less splitting the bill.
posted by muddgirl at 9:40 AM on June 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

Not Indian but have immigrant parents who come from a more traditional family-centric culture. My parents were never like the American sitcom parents we saw on TV who were always saying out loud that they couldn't wait for their kids to leave the nest and move out.

Despite their not so secret wish that I live near them forever and ever, I now live across the country from my parents. In a conversation with my mother, I once referred to the house where I grew up, and where my parents still live as "her house." I was surprised to find out days later she was horribly insulted, sad, and angry. "We're family," she said. "In our culture you don't ever stop belonging to the household. It's not that you live in your house and I live in my house. What an American thing to say, so terrible! You should always call it 'our house!'"

Maybe something similar is going on here. Letting the parents pay would have been fine - parents take care of their children no matter how old they get; the kids (you guys) treating the parents would have been fine - it's good to respect your elders and be kind to them - but splitting the bill implies a "your house" and a "my house," not an "our house." It makes everyone a separate entity, out on their own, fending for themselves and the opposite of what would traditionally be thought of as family-centric.
posted by sestaaak at 9:49 AM on June 14, 2014 [19 favorites]

My parents (Indian, lived in the States for a few years) generally expect to pick up the tab. Other times, if my sibling or I have made it clear that we're paying, they go with it (but usually check that we're sure before we actually pay). Sometimes we split the bill but that is really rare. I've never heard of the oldest male rule. On the whole, I think this varies by family but parents expecting to pay is definitely more common among my circle of people.
posted by 9000condiments at 9:54 AM on June 14, 2014

My (white British) father once roared me out in a restaurant for looking at the itemised bill that he had just paid. I was not of an age that I had an income that would enable me to split the bill, but his reaction showed he had some kind of proprietary feeling towards it anyway. My parents are also very much of the school that they pay for everything if their (now adult) children are there. I've also had the upset reaction described above at describing the parental house as "your place" rather than "home".

I'm guessing the OTT reaction ties into a long and difficult family relationship to "Americanisation", combined with a similar kind of family value regarding money.
posted by mymbleth at 9:59 AM on June 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

There are some generalities in Indian culture because of shared immigrant experiences back home. I understand where the parents are coming from. From the mother's point of view, splitting the bill turns a family affair into a business-like transaction which seems a very cold move on your part to her because of the underlying dependency on each other than Indians who have lived in India for a long time value. Being independent creates distance between people in the mother's mind contrary to the value that is placed on being independent in Western culture. To her it sends a message that the son doesn't 'need' them anymore.
The oldest person/male at the table picking up the tab is a commonly accepted cultural norm since it is a sexist society. It's not uncommon to see folks young and old fight over the bill and insist on picking up the tab but usually the oldest person wins. Hospitality and treating your guests/kids whenever you can is a source of pride and pleasure for Indian immigrants.
In conclusion, yes it's a bit of an insult to offer money to Indian parents in most situations.
posted by cynicalidealist at 10:04 AM on June 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm not Indian at all, but to me splitting the check is just not done in a family context, especially if it's only a small group of people. That's what you do at a work event or when going out with friends. I don't even split the check when going out for fast food with my brothers, and we're all broke. Somebody picks up the tab, and then somebody else gets a round of beers later or whatever or maybe not because it's not like anybody's going anywhere.

If your husband had offered to pay the bill, that would be a totally different thing than wanting to split the bill, which basically says to me "these people do not even want to share food with me or accept my hospitality".

Within my family (I'm in my early 30s and my siblings range from mid to late 20s), my dad still insists on paying when taking us out. I remember a lot of struggles between my dad and grandfather over restaurant bills, when I was a teenager (which would have put my dad late 30s/into his 40s), arising out of the fact that my dad started becoming more successful in his career right around the time that my grandfather retired. Even though my dad was better able to pay for a restaurant bill, my grandfather still felt like it was his place.
posted by Sara C. at 10:07 AM on June 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am Indian and have lived in the US for about 8 years. I am trying to think of a time when I have split the bill with my Indian parents, and I can't think of any. This is because my parents (and perhaps, other Indian parents) think of splitting the bill as something one does with coworkers or acquaintances, usually not with friends and definitely not with family. I think that you should have either offered to pick up the bill altogether, or accepted their offer to pick up the entire bill. The reason is that splitting the bill does add a transactional quality to the whole thing, as grouse puts it above.

When we are in India, the only times I have split the bill is when I was in high school or college and going out with young friends and none of us was really flush enough to pick up the entire thing. Every other time, my parents or other older persons paid. Even when I brought a whole contingent of people to India for my wedding reception and we took a several day long trip to various tourist sites, my parents insisted on paying for every single meal (and in fact, every hotel room as well). They wouldn't hear of anything else. If you really want to get closer to a 50-50 split, insist on picking up the entire tab, saying something like this is my treat, my treat and claiming that since you're now an adult you would really like to do this. Something like that. Do not try to just pay your share of the bill; that just looks cheap, since the parents have been paying for the entire bill for so many years.
posted by peacheater at 10:20 AM on June 14, 2014 [6 favorites]

incredible answers, everyone. thank you.

i have spent my entire adult life splitting the bill with my mom without any respect/business-aspect/cultural taboos being raised. he's spent almost a decade with my family seeing the same thing, and this is the background we bring to it. it's not at every meal, but in almost twenty years as an adult it's absolutely never been an issue when it happened.

37yo mr. mitt and i have been married for years, and this is not the first time something like this has happened. they have struggled with him being too western (which would have been the correct word for mom of mr. mitt to use, not american, felt like i should clarify that for irony's sake) his whole life, including marrying me, and this was just another delightful bump in the road.

We appreciate everyone chiming in, if only to help take us out of the headspace that because his parents made it an indian/non-indian issue, and they clearly did, that does not mean it is.

Thanks everyone!
posted by ovenmitt at 10:26 AM on June 14, 2014

American with a European heritage here. My family insists that the parent always picks up the tab, and it's an offense if the child does or tries to split it. I think everyone makes a bit too big of a deal of it, but I understand the basic logic. If you're older, more established in life, and higher up the family chain so to speak, you help out or cover the younger folks.

My grandparents always covered the tab or cover expenses when we saw them or went out to eat. When my grandpa went to football games with us, he'd buy the tickets. Now that he has passed away, my dad buys the tickets for me and my siblings.

I find myself doing it too. Whenever I go out to dinner with my younger brothers or sisters, I insist on picking up the check.

Now, I think the parent here is way out of line for yelling or crying about it or making it into some sort of racial or ethnic conflict... but it's quite common in families of all heritages and backgrounds for parents to want to handle that sort of stuff.
posted by Old Man McKay at 10:30 AM on June 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not Indian, but my own father was an immigrant:

Yeah, it's the splitting the bill that probably made things worse than if you & your husband had merely paid the entire bill. My own somewhat old-fashioned German immigrant father considered it an absolute hoot whenever I --- not just his child, but a daughter! --- picked up the check in public.

I'd call this more a problem specifically with the senior Mitts (or possibly just Mrs. Mitt?) rather than an Indian thing; for the sake of peace, in the future try to make it all or nothing. And when you do choose to pay the full bill, their son (rather than you, the mere daughter-in-law) should respectfully tell them it's his honor to treat his parents, to thank them for all they do for him.
posted by easily confused at 10:38 AM on June 14, 2014

Polish first generation chiming in. What everyone else said about parents taking pride on providing, except when children pick up the whole tab and "gifting" to parents as a sign of respect.

Likewise, the age thing. I wouldn't let my lesser earning sister or younger cousin pick up a drink or restaurant tab.

As to you MIL's reaction: she chose this circumstance as a an opportunity to overreact about something else that is bothering her. A correct reaction on your inlaw's part would have been to firmly decline your offer to split the bill and to gently explain that as parents, they wished to provide for you. If they wanted to drive home the hint, they could have said "you can take us out to dinner next time/on our birthdays/for some occasion/because you love us".
posted by slateyness at 10:39 AM on June 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

they have struggled with him being too western (which would have been the correct word for mom of mr. mitt to use, not american, felt like i should clarify that for irony's sake) his whole life, including marrying me, and this was just another delightful bump in the road.

There's something more going on here with their reaction, I suspect. Your repetition of this above point about their use of the word "American" strikes me as significant in that light.

You know what they meant, and it did not refer to citizenship, but did refer to culture. So why are you picking at this? Ask yourself if you dislike the in-laws, if you don't respect them, and if perhaps they can sense that. If they know you trivialize them and their views, then it makes sense that they would blow up over something bigger.
posted by J. Wilson at 11:50 AM on June 14, 2014 [9 favorites]

I'm desi. This is not an Indian thing, this is a parent concept. I've had a girlfriend's dad physically assault me in a tie and jacket environment because he didn't think it was appropriate that I contribute anything to the bill, let alone take care of all of it because he "was the parent".

Not an Indian thing, it's a parent thing.

But seriously, that mom weeping is bizarre.
posted by hal_c_on at 12:00 PM on June 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

The mom weeping to me and general some kinds of Indian mother hysterics is nothing new to me (also Desi). She probably worries about her son and her place in it and not bring able to relate to you, and this probably just pushed her over the edge.
posted by discopolo at 1:09 PM on June 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

The "old world" parents I know take splitting the bill as an insult. If you pay for them it's even worse.

It's like if your friends paid you back for a birthday gift that you gave them. You would find it rude, like they were throwing it in your face.

It makes doing nice things for the parents a little tricky, since you have to filter it through that lense.

The hysterical weeping is her specific brand of drama related to the above.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 2:21 PM on June 14, 2014

Yeah, splitting the check with parents would have been considered just "wrong" on both sides of my family (Viet and American). One person pays the bill in total. If it is the child then it is a "gift" while a parent picking up the bill is "taking care of your own." The mom crying is drama that points to deeper anxieties. Even in the workplace, I and another co-worker take turns footing the whole bill. I have a friendly relationship with these people and splitting the bill for a lunch seems very detached. The only time I split the bill is when it needs to be purely business with no sense of personal relationship. Footing the whole bill is a sign of generosity, of relationship building and a certain level of intimacy. Splitting the bill is something I would do for a speed date with no second date in the offing.
posted by jadepearl at 2:54 PM on June 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Indian culture is very different from western culture. We do not split costs, we offer to be the one to pay for things. A family is a family and that is everything. Period. Elders pay for youngsters and never take from them. Youngsters take care of elders when they no longer can take care of themselves. If you offer to pay you are basically suggesting that they are not capable of paying themselves or lack finances. You do not split bills, you offer to pay the complete bill-that is courtesy. Splitting is not. In Indian culture it is not each person for themselves, it is each person for the others around them. Huge difference.
posted by jbean at 3:01 PM on June 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

I have seen "white" families where splitting the bill is ok, but I've never seen it done in "ethnic" families of any description including my own. I would find it extremely off-putting and weird. It would definitely not feel family-appropriate.

What I'm saying is, your MIL shouldn't have cried, and your FIL should have just smiled and said "haha, that's not how we do it"; and your husband should have just accepted dinner graciously (and optionally said "thanks! We'll treat you next time!"); but in most family cultures I have seen, offering to split the bill on a family dinner would be a faux pas and be taken as "we see this as no more familial a setting than a lunch with co-workers."
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:22 PM on June 14, 2014

Sri Lankan here. The bill is never split. It would be unthinkable. Among family, either the child or the parent picks it up, and no one speaks of it. Among friends, there is an absurd dance where each person tries to bully the other into letting them pay the bill. Suggesting a split would be a horrendous breach.
posted by sid at 6:39 PM on June 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

White European here - my father would be upset if we went out for a meal and I'd offer to pick up the bill.

My aunt, who I used to live with when I was a poor student and after university, tries to give me money if I pick up things like a tub of whipping cream or a loaf of bread when I stay with them to this day. This is food they'll share with me whilst I'm there. I earn a lot more than my aunt and uncle used to and they are both retired now.

Getting my aunt and uncle to let me pay for restaurant meals is a battle, even if they are meant to be a treat for them. It transpires that the most successful way to do that is actually to get vouchers for a specific restaurant and give those to them. To a degree this defeats the object because I'd like to use these occasions to spend time with them. Anyway, to me this is probably not even Indian culture related but more the fact that your family have a very different approach to that of a lot of other families.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:47 AM on June 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm an Aussie now living in the US, my family pretty much always split the bill, or took turns paying when we went out, if one person was broke we went to a cheaper restaurant. Birthdays were the only meals that the guest of honor didn't to pay their share for. Since I've moved to the US my inlaws (who have lived in the US for at least 3 generations that I know of and couldn't be more Mid Western typical US if they tried) are horrified if my husband and I try and split the bill we have gotten them to the place where we can pay for about 1 meal in 5 without them freaking out, and now my Brother in Law has a good job he tries to pay for us all from time to time too.

So don't assume the bill paying thing to do with a particular culture or how westernized anyone is. I'd just apologize for the misunderstanding (because hey it's family and it smooths stuff over), let them pay for the next meals until things calm down then offer to pay for a whole meal every so often.
posted by wwax at 8:21 AM on June 15, 2014

Again, thank you everyone for your answers. The breadth of responses again cements the importance of the metafilter community.

Many of you pointed out that this was not a cultural issue, but a parent/child issue. It was definitely a cultural issue, which is why the question was posed as it was. Even as we tried to discuss it again with his parents yesterday, they said over and over that this was about their culture (read: not my culture) (read: disappointment with [only] son's western choices).

We believe that if it was a parent/child issue, they would have just laughed and said, "no, let us take care of it," and moved on. But that conversation never took place; there was no back and forth over who might pay. I guess that's why the situation was so unexpected (in addition to the above fact that my family does this regularly). Instead we went from a pleasant dinner to his parents shouting and crying inconsolably about the dishonor they felt at sharing in the cost of the meal.

happy ending: we paid for the whole meal on our card (prior to the escalation) so it ended up being our tab anyway.
posted by ovenmitt at 8:52 AM on June 15, 2014

Wait, you put the whole meal on your card? Why did you omit that information until this update? It could change some of the answers.
posted by J. Wilson at 10:01 AM on June 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

interesting point...we were interested only in understanding the cultural norms related to the situation, so who paid by card and who paid cash truly did not seem relevant to the question.

the east/west issues that we have with his parents are longstanding, and so it was our intention to get the perspective of others on this specific situation.

thank you for your first on-the-nose answer, and for checking back with the follow-up.
posted by ovenmitt at 10:36 AM on June 15, 2014

Old Europe here.
In my particular family, the oldest person present takes the bill. That is just how it is, and in some situations it has been a bit tough for me, because I am the oldest of my "generation", and I am a single parent and was dirt poor for years. I saved up for those situations, but my siblings did their best to help me discreetly, too.
Strangely, in one of my family member's in-law family, they do bill-splitting and potlucks all the time. I don't have the feeling this is normal within our culture, and till recently, I felt uncomfortable with it. To me, it felt cheap and un-engaged. I've since understood that for them, it signifies sharing and respect. Basically, I think it is very important to talk about these issues well in advance, and definitely not when the bill arrives.
posted by mumimor at 2:02 PM on June 15, 2014

Whatever the feelings about whether or not splitting the bill is acceptable, it was NOT acceptable for the mother-in-law to complain that her son was "too American" in the car with the OP (or ever), who is presumably "American". If the in-laws were (white ?) Americans, and the OP was Indian, and the mother-in-law had said her son was "too Indian", we'd all be horrified at the racism. Same goes.
posted by sarahkeebs at 2:08 PM on June 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

This sounds to me like an issue that is way bigger than just splitting a bill. If I had to take a guess, Mrs. Mitt was tired and had an unconscious negative reaction to the fact that her son is growing up, not to mention growing up in a different culture than she did.

This would be my guess, the bill-splitting is a hook that some existing emotional roil is hanging on.
posted by Sebmojo at 3:17 PM on June 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

(Echoing what others have said.)

I’m only half Indian, but I was raised with the habit of always offering—even demanding—to be the one to pay the bill in full. Everyone on the Indian side of my family/friends (for practically any good friend counts as family) did it, to the point where there’d be “fighting” at the end of the meal to be the first to get your credit card to the waiter. Didn’t matter your gender, nor your age (I think the youngest to compete was in college. I certainly had thrown myself into the ring around that time.).

Not once did anyone ever agree to split the bill. Can’t really say why, and I never did ask, but there’s, at least in my family, a very strong impulse to be the one to provide and take care of others. If this is just a cultural thing (and though their reaction wouldn’t necessarily be implausible if it that’s all it is, I’d wager there’s more going on), then I’d say that your offer to split the bill was the issue, as you were unwittingly implying that her parents could not completely provide, and at the same time that you couldn’t completely either.

Then there’s also the business of Indian culture when it comes to family roles: to explain generally, the parents take care of their children until they are no longer able, at which point the children return the favor.

But I’ve got a degree in theatre, so this is all armchair analysis.
posted by karanlyons at 7:31 PM on June 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

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