‘I’m an etiquette expert, and this is the polite way you split the bill’

‘I’m an etiquette expert, and this is the polite way you split the bill’ etiquette

Liz Wyse is an Etiquette Adviser at DeBrett’s, the British authority on modern manners.

It’s great to share a meal and split the bill with friends, but making sure it is a seamless, equitable process can be very fraught. As an etiquette expert, I am frequently asked about the niceties of splitting the bill in restaurants, and how social awkwardness, resentments and misunderstandings can be avoided.

Traditionally, the person who suggests the meal and invites the guests to a restaurant is seen as the host, and is expected to pay. This custom causes a great deal of confusion today, as we are much more casual and spontaneous about eating out, and more rigid conventions about paying and hosting have been eroded.

If you want to pay the bill

If you have decided that paying for the meal is your responsibility, it is probably best to say so at the beginning, so that there is no ambiguity or confusion.

You don’t need to make a flamboyant display of your generosity – just say something like “my treat”; alternatively, use the phrase “I’d like to take you out to [dinner]” when you make the initial arrangement. This will also allow you to take on the role of host, and to discreetly manage the proceedings.

If you want to split the bill

On many occasions, however, eating together is a co-operative affair and the challenge of splitting the bill is much more easily dealt with if it is acknowledged at the outset.

So, when everybody is settled at the table and looking at their menus it is sensible for one person (frequently there is one individual who has initiated the arrangement, suggested the restaurant, gathered the group together) to just say something like “I think it would be much easier if we split the bill”, or “are we all agreed we’re going to split the bill?”.

While there is often one individual who is “in charge” when it comes to eating as a group, it is important that they do not become too dictatorial.

Running the whole show (giving menu guidance, ordering wine, talking to the sommelier, deciding when to order coffee, signalling for the bill and so on) is the privilege of a host who intends to pay for the meal.

If you behave in this way, fellow diners might assume that you are going to pick up the bill, which could cause embarrassment.

If you intend to pay for a couple of people

If you are dining in a large group which includes, for example, members of your family or your partner, and you intend to pay for them, it might be a good idea to tell them that it is your treat before the meal starts.

Then, when it comes to the final reckoning, you can discreetly mention to the waiter that you will be paying for several individuals, and your payment can be adjusted accordingly.

How to order politely

It is important to clarify that the bill is going to be split at the outset because if everyone is aware that the bill will be equally divided, they are more likely to moderate their choices and match their dining companions – for example, if everybody is ordering cheaper daily specials rather than more expensiveà la carte options, it is sensible to fall into step.

Take the precaution of being somewhat tentative about ordering, holding back and consulting with fellow diners before making your choice, rather than plumping decisively for the most expensive option.

These accommodations can be openly acknowledged by the group, and it is helpful if one person (possibly the group “leader”) says something like, “shall we all stick to the set menu?” or “shall we go straight to the main course?”.

Alarm bells will ring if one recalcitrant individual insists that they want to order, for example, the extremely expensive lobster, and casually adds “I’ll pay the difference”.

This signals problems ahead, as it means there might be complex negotiations at the end of the meal, so it is more considerate to go with the group dynamic and reserve your wilder extravagances for another occasion.

Choices of wine should be checked with the group before they are ordered. If one individual is a wine buff who grabs the wine list and orders an eye-wateringly expensive bottle, his or her dining companions might feel justifiably annoyed when it comes to paying.

The easiest option is to all agree on an uncontroversial, reasonably priced wine – often the house wine. Passionate oenophiles who cannot bear the compromise might suggest treating the group to a favourite bottle, but they really should offer to pay.

Avoid the phone calculators

At the end of the meal, the most rational and courteous option is to split the bill equally. This will normally be the job of the quasi-host and – to avoid looking like a humourless accountant, pecking away at a phone calculator – it is best to swiftly round up the bill (a few extra pounds and pence will be welcomed by the waiters) and use basic mental arithmetic to make the necessary divisions.

If the bill includes service, that makes it easier; if not, the round-up will need to include an extra 10-15pc – this should be added as a matter of course (unless the service has been catastrophically bad), and should pre-empt any awkward arguments with less-than-generous quibblers.

It is, of course, possible to divide up and settle the bill and then ask everybody to leave a cash tip, but this can be awkward as many people no longer carry cash and there might be disagreements about the amount to tip. Therefore, it is probably easier to include the tip in the overall calculation.

These days, when everybody taps to pay, it is quite acceptable to ask the waiter to divide the bill and arrive at a figure, including service, for every diner.

However, it might be more helpful if one of the guests at the table volunteers to perform this function and tells everyone what they have to pay, thus avoiding nasty surprises when the waiter wields the card machine.

The important thing is to ensure that the settling up is a smooth and discreet operation, and that protracted discussions, which might mean that the evening ends on a sour note, are avoided.

If certain individuals have made promises at the beginning of the meal to pay for their own indulgences (lobster, wine etc), they should jump in as soon as the bill arrives (“remember, I owe an extra £40”).

If they fail to do so, they should be reminded by the bill calculator, who can simply say something like: “Justine, I think you said you’d pay for that wine, so I’m going to add an extra £50 to your bill”. This is somewhat awkward, but it is better to redeem their promise than to leave other guests feeling exploited.

Navigating extra alcohol costs

Eating out in a group where some of the diners are non-drinkers can pose problems. If you are a teetotaller and you’re surrounded by enthusiastic boozers, you might be alarmed at the prospect of the rising bill every time the waiter is called to replenish the wine.

Equally, a tableful of austere water-drinkers might well experience a qualm when just a couple of individuals opt for cocktails and wine.

As always, the politest option is to try and moderate your behaviour and mirror your fellow diners.

A non-drinker should not be too nonplussed by modest wine-consumption and should accept that this is to be expected. Inveterate drinkers, who find themselves surrounded by dining companions who opt for non-alcoholic drinks, are probably best advised to restrict themselves to a moderate glass of wine and save their drinking excesses for more like-minded company.

Problems arise when there is a marked imbalance between diners’ consumption, so it is always a good idea to be alert to possible inequities.

If you’re aware that you’ve drunk vastly more than your companions, point this out at the end of the meal, and suggest that you’ll pay extra, or deal with the service charge.

Inevitably there will be occasions when some individuals feel that they’re paying for more than they’ve consumed, but we should all accept that this is the price we must pay for companionable dining.

We should never try to solve this problem by making arduous calculations when the bill arrives to reflect each diner’s choices. Nothing is more guaranteed to take the pleasure out of a meal than a nit-picking discussion about the bill.


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