Tara writes a long post about the dinner party the other night that precipitated my post on Being The Bank: The Only Way To End Restaurant Squabbling. Strangely enough, she wrote her post without reading mine, I think (at least it is not referenced, although I am). But I think Tara and a bunch of the folks that read her post got the system wrong. Here’s Tara’s thoughts:
I was content in splitting the bill in equally around the table (minus the birthday girl).
This was an issue, though. A big issue that seemed to ruffle more feathers than necessary. Thrown into the mix, the ever-generous Stowe Boyd has come up with a ‘bank’ system that he believes solves these sorts of problems (but I suspect made it more complicated) whereas he says everyone throws in what they think they owe based on their own philosophy and he will cover what is left over.
[Note: She doesn’t link to my post, just to www.stoweboyd.com.]
I asked aloud, “Well, why don’t we just all throw in the equal amount around the table?”
Which was met with protests of: “We don’t drink” and “Some people didn’t eat as much as others”
So, (perhaps too) boldly, I offered, “Neither Chris nor I drank, either. And Chris is a vegetarian, but we are of the philosophy that in the grande scheme of life, it all balances out over time, so we don’t mind pitching in equivalent numbers.”
More protest. Grumpiness. Bad feelings.
“Well, what if someone is having a bad month and they really watched what they were eating?” came from the Birthday girl herself.
Nobody spoke up. I wanted to offer, “Well, that person could make it known and we can all pitch in a few more dollars to balance it.” but I thought I’d shutup while I was ahead. I could tell my opinion wasn’t the popular one and I felt I had made enough of an ass of myself.
[Not an ass, just sliding down a slippery slope.]
So…we paid our 2/12th’s, the vegetarian/non-drinking couple across from us paid their 2/12th’s, the 2 glasses of champagne, but hardly a nibble on the appetizers woman kitty corner paid her 2/12th’s and the other side of the table seemed pissed. I’m sure Stowe got the short end of the stick.
[I didn’t, about which more later.]
In my experience, dinners where you calculate your contributions down to the dime end up short changed 95% of the time. People forget to pitch in for their contribution to the appetizer or forget to calculate the tax or their portion of the tip (and we all tip differently). With a communal throw-in, the bill gets covered and someone may throw in $20 more than they owe (usually the difference is much less).
Stowe’s bank system is generous and I admire his sacrifice to make the peace (I wonder if he is Libra?), but I can’t see anyone really feeling good about it. Stowe may be the only one. I know I felt awful thinking about what he had to make up for.
There were two strong philosophies there:
* Pay exactly what you owe - Individualism
* Split the bill in equal portions - Communalism
Stowe became the United Nations. The uneasy middle ground between dichotomous philosophies. This is his solution to the delicate balance of respecting all philosophies. But were there other options? Could have there been a democratic vote? Maybe an equal split with room for individual protest (Everyone throws in $80, but John Doe protests that he only ate $40 worth of food, so everyone throws in an extra $5 to help cover John…I mean, what is $5 on $80)? Perhaps we should have requested individual checks at the beginning of the meal and agreed not to have any shared food/drinks (as it seems that we started with one philosophy then tried to impose the other one)? Perhaps the group should have just imposed its will on the individuals?
A simple dinner turned into an interesting study of the struggle between individual and community that I’ve been studying lately.
A few clarifications:
- The notion of one person stepping up to be the “Bank” is not blind altruism. I do not undertake this expecting to be paying for others. The basic belief is that when you ask people to pay what is fair — in the context of a group of others that are asked to do the same thing — I have learned that people will pay what is fair. They will figure out what they ate (more or less) calculate a tip (based on some normative scale) and then toss that into the pile. While I have had a few occasions when I wound up subsidizing a large group’s wine fascination, in over 90% of the several dozen times I have played the Bank, the result has been amazingly close to the bill, plus tip. I think people are honest, and want to do the right thing. The purpose of the Bank system is to provide a quiet, non-confrontational, and simple technique so that the end of an otherwise wonderful evening doesn’t descend into acrimony and argument.
Yes, it is true that I am volunteering to make good on the shortfall, if any. That’s to avoid the checking up to see if people “pay their share” — the entire public aspect of the thing is put aside. Everyone can privately and anonymously decide what to pay, and if they decide that they only had one oyster, not six, and therefore only want to pay $2.50 not 1/12 of the oyster order, fine.
Most importantly, the discussion about paying for dinner does not intrude into the dinner experience itself. It is a strictly interior discussion that each payee goes through individually. Which makes the collective dinner experience much more pleasant, at least for me. Of course, there may be some people that want to argue this through at every group dinner…
- Yes, I am a Libran, and my Moon, Mars, Venus, and Rising are all in Aries. Although I don’t think that has much to do with this: that’s a separate topic.
- I do agree with the notion of Dinner Karma (as Cheryl mentioned in the comments at Tara’s post), in general: it all evens out over time, so don’t sweat a few bucks here and there. However, if you are chronically eating a salad and no booze, it doesn’t even out. You are constantly underwriting others’ bar tabs and oysters. But for someone like me, who travels incessantly, and eats with different groups all the time, the law of large numbers intrudes, and it really does average out.
- In all fairness to the others at the table, who argued against Tara’s equal distribution suggestion, it is the argument about which system to use, what’s fair, and so on, that I was trying to avoid. Still Tara is right to want to get to the heart of this issue: but a dinner table after a meal with 12 people is the wrong place to have it. It’s too easy to confuse philosophy with stinginess at a time like that.
- Also in fairness to all involved, especially with a wide and culturally diverse group of very different eating and drinking habits, it is best to announce whatever method of shared payment is going to be used in advance. For example, if the Bank approach is going to be used, asking people to bring cash makes it all much simpler. Alternatively, if some approach is going to be used where individuals pay, its nice to inform the restaurant. Stephanie, the birthday girl in this scenario, has stated that she wished that she had put this information in the invitations, which I agree with.
- There is a nuclear option, too. Those that believe in the wheel of karma can simply offer to buy dinner for everyone, once in a while. In a social scene where that is the norm that that would work, but I think it’s unlikely to catch on in our short-sighted and, yes, ungracious society.
In the final analysis, I dreamed up the Bank to avoid exactly the bad taste left behind by the sort of wrangling that took place the other night. Even after I outlined the approach at Stephanie’s party, the conversation swerved into what are now all too well-trodden paths, and I saw that the chance to simply sidestep the rancorous debate had slipped away. A small, familiar despair filled me. And as I walked away I promised to write the idea up, in the hopes of helping others to avoid this avoidable mess that seems sadly inevitable in the choppy seas of our slapdash, crazy-quilt culture.
Thanks to Tara for writing her viewpoint so eloquently, although I totally disagree with her analysis. She views it as a tension between the collective and the individual. I see it as a cultural hiccup, where old forms have fallen into disuse (for example, in my grandfather’s era the host would pay for the dinner of those invited, and if any financial arrangement is involved it is done discreetly, and especially not at the dinner table after the meal is done), and the casual contrivances of the American post-war middle class are on the rise (divide the total by the number of people), but all are colliding with the pay as you go model (each person buys their own lunch at the foodcourt, and they sit down together at a shared table).
Tara is right (as are others in her comment thread) to wonder about our sense of relationship in these contexts, but I think it is more a question of social leadership. I think a much greater responsibility should fall on those that invite others to their dinners. In a recent dinner party I had in London, there were 25 attending, and we had none of these discussions or rancor: I simply explained that I was paying the bill, and people were invited to pay me whatever they thought was fair. We had much the same set-up: shared appetizers, wine that some drank and others didn’t, individual dinners, some with dessert others without. But no post-meal haggling. The difference is simply that the Bank model was outlined during the meal, and no alternatives were offered. In the social context I dream of, peace and harmony would trump any question of financial impact, but in a world erroneously driven by ROI, I will bare all: yes, I may have wound up paying slightly more than I would have if I divided things by 25, but that is more than alright.
One of the central tenets of being the Bank is that you don’t count people’s contributions, except in aggregate, so people’s decisions are safely anonymous and their motives remain personal. But this factor seems to have not surfaced in the thread on Tara’s post.
At any rate, I hope this discussion will help others avoid the pitfalls of last minute cultural investigations into fairness, personal economics, and the power of weak and strong social ties while we should be digesting and arguing about something more important, like global warming or the presidential elections.