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When the bill comes at the end of dinner a dinner out with friends or family, things can get awkward, fast. Maybe you’re an adult who isn’t sure if it’s appropriate to keep letting your parents will pick up the tab. Maybe you’re on a first date and don’t want to give the impression you’re a mooch—or deal with the expectation that you “owe” a little something to the person who just bought your meal. Among friends, it can be stressful too: divvying up a bill, keeping track of who ordered what, and bearing in mind that some of your pals may make less (or much more) than you do.
Immediately grabbing the bill and offering to pay it might seem like a great option if you’re in a financial position to do that, but it can also appear showy and make others feel uncomfortable. You also need to be ready to act the split second when the bill hits the table, which makes it all the more fraught. But worry not—There are ways to pick up the tab or discreetly pay your part without making anyone feel weird about it.
Jennifer Porter, a Seattle-based etiquette expert, said you can go about paying for someone’s meal “in a few ways,” but you should figure out your plan in advance.
“When you’re making plans, be super clear,” she says. “That can go for splitting or sharing the bill, but it can also go for if making an invitation. [If you want to pay], make it very clear: ‘It’s my treat.’ I think that takes away some of the awkwardness.”
If you didn’t communicate when making plans, you can still do so later. Porter suggests announcing your intention when you sit down and start looking over the menus. Look the other the person in the eye and say, “I would really like to treat you tonight.”
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You should be pre-emptive, she adds, to avoid confrontation or weirdness at the end of the meal. When you make your reservation, let the restaurant know you intend to pay. Casually give your card to your server or a staffer before dessert is brought out, maybe by taking a quick trip to the bathroom, or even hand it over on your way into the establishment.
The expectations for business lunches or birthdays are clear, but for more casual get togethers among friends and family, things can be a little hazier. Porter notes the key to a seamless meal payment is communication, so ideally you should be dining with—and planning to pay for—people whose reactions you’ll be able to anticipate.
“You need to be respectful,” she cautions, and use “clear, honest, open communication” that matches up with the dynamics you have established in the relationship. That being said…
If someone protests, don’t push it
There may be times when the other members of your party are vocal about not wanting you to pay for them. If that happens, don’t push it. That will just make things weirder.
“Let the person object once and then say it again,” Porter says. “If they object again, listen to them. If they don’t and they accept your generous offer to pay for the meal, then graciously thank them and be done with it and don’t think about it.”
Understand where that protest might be coming from. Parents can feel awkward about their kids paying for a variety of reasons. They may be used to protecting you or be uncomfortable with you aging into a position to be able to provide for them instead. That’s a hard role reversal to get used to. If it makes your dad feel nice to get you some pasta, let him do it. On a romantic evening, your date may want to show you they can pay, or they may have some deep-rooted ideas about gender roles. Depending on how you want the date and relationship to go, your best bet could be letting them do it, too.
If someone is strenuously objecting to you paying, it might indicate there’s a broader issue between you. Porter notes if there are monetary hangups between friends or family members, “dinner is not the time to address it.” Have a frank talk about the issue at a later date, and just split the bill civilly in the meantime.
Act from the heart
Hopefully you’re not trying to show off or force someone else into a position where they’ll feel they owe you down the line. Only go out of your way to pay the bill if you feel compelled to do so because it’s a nice thing to do, or because you want to minimize awkwardness, or if you simply recognize it’s your turn.
“It’s such a blessing for a parent to know that your child not only can do it and has the bank account to do that, but that they have the courtesy and respect to want to give back,” Porter said. “Think about all the meals that your mom has given you!”