In China, tradition dictates an increasing vigorous tussle over the bill until, like the alpha-male in an Attenborough documentary, the most senior of the herd wins the day and settles the debt alone. In contrast, it’s not unusual in Germany for each diner to be presented with their own itemised bill.
In the UK, however, we flit between paying individually, splitting evenly or some mathematically complicated mixture of the two – leading to frustration, distress and, in some cases, some highly mercenary tactical dish-selection.
Firstly, there’s the plight of the small eater. It is perhaps a sign of modern fashions that eating lightly (especially if you’re nurturing a healthy BMI) is now severely frowned upon in polite company. The words “don’t tell me you’re on a diet!” are usually enough to shame the modest eater into ordering an unwanted chocolate fondant with cream. Social niceties then dictates that no fuss be made over one’s own portion of the theoretical bill; instead, hope rests on the chance that some conscientious white knight will quietly point out that Amanda only had the soup and half a chocolate fondant, and insist that the remaining bill is split. Split, that is, equally among everyone else present.
The question of alcohol consumption is another flammable after-dinner topic. Better the teetotaller be, than the one who nurses a solitary glass of wine the whole evening only to be lumped in with “the drinkers” when the night’s damage is tallied up across a bottle-strewn table.
It’s a topic that draws academic attention. The Economic Journal published a paper entitled The Inefficiency of Splitting the Bill (pdf), in which the authors consider what they term the “unscrupulous diner’s dilemma”: “When a group of diners jointly enjoys a meal at a restaurant, often an unspoken agreement exists to divide the check equally. A selfish diner could thereby enjoy exceptional dinners at bargain prices.”
They set up three scenarios for a group of six diners: paying individually, splitting the bill equally, and receiving a free meal. Unsurprisingly, the average bill is smallest in the first case, with diners ordering 1.67 dishes on average. Move to splitting the bill equally, and average meal cost jumps by 36%. However, that’s nothing compared to the free meal scenario, where participants ordered 3 dishes on average and the meal cost skyrocketed to 220% the cost of paying individually. Something to perhaps consider, before offering to pay for dinner on your next birthday.
Over the pond, the Americans have developed their own solution to the gentle art of bill splitting: the recently released Foodivide iPhone app, which apparently provides the “fastest and most drop dead gorgeous way to split a bill”. The app-wielder taps in every food item and drags-and-drops it (gorgeously, we assume) onto each diner’s virtual plate, thus calculating everyone’s exact share of the bill, tax and service included. Given that you’d need eagle eyes and an eidetic memory to remember who ordered what without doing the grand “So what did you order?” table survey, you wonder where the time and social gain really lies, apart from dealing with the numerically- or generosity-challenged who think that adding 12.5% to a bill means rounding up to the nearest pound.
And let’s not get started on the complex modern ritual of who pays the bill when a new couple go out for dinner, where even reaching for the plastic could jeopardise (or rapidly boost) one’s chances of romantic success. That said, they say that being able to discuss finances in a frank and non-confrontational manner is one of the keys to long term relationship success. So go ahead a pin your date down on exactly what is implied by “let me get this one”. It could save years of stress and heartache in the long run.
So how do you usually split the bill? Is it ever polite to ask to pay individually? Or should we all just keep quiet and order the lobster?