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Social Grace 

Old Friends, New Friends, Cheap Friends, True Friends

Wednesday, Nov 8 2000
Dear Social Grace,
Here's the scenario: I belong to an outdoor-activity club for single people. A few of us from the club were invited to a surprise birthday party for one of our members -- to be held at an upscale Italian restaurant. I was able to spend only $20 for this dinner, so I chose the least expensive meal (an $8 salad) and agreed to pay for a glass of wine from a bottle that my friends were buying (we agreed on $2). The rest of my $20 was to go toward the birthday gal's dinner, tip, and tax.

All in all, about 20 people were at this dinner. The birthday gal's boyfriend ordered a couple of $100 bottles of wine, appetizers, and the most expensive dish on the menu, which no one else sampled. When it came time to settle the bill, I gave my $20. The girl who hosted the party then announced that we each needed to pay $65 towards the tab. My friends from the club and I were appalled! There was never any mention that we would be splitting the tab this way at the end of the party. Whispering together, my small group decided that there was no way the hostess could expect us to pay that price, since she didn't tell us that would be a requirement of our attending the party. We politely collected our things, said good night to the birthday girl, and left, leaving more money on the table than I considered to be our responsibility but not the asked-for $65. A couple of days later, the hostess called me and demanded that I pay the remaining balance on my $65 "tab." I explained to her that she had no right to ask for the money, that I would have never attended the party if she had told us up front that we would be splitting the bill this way. This made her angry, and she said a few choice words to me. Needless to say, none of us has been invited to any more of their parties.

OK, so am I right? What would have been the proper way to deal with this?

Thanks for your help,

Dear JoAnn,
Of course you're very welcome -- I am here to help.

First, for everyone's benefit, I want to go over three definitions. To host a dinner party is to invite friends for a meal -- by definition, the host or hostess meets the financial obligations of that meal. To split a check is to dine in a restaurant without a host -- that is to say, each person is expected to pay his or her share of the bill. And finally, we have the phrase to extort money from friends and acquaintances -- the meaning of which should be perfectly obvious but often isn't -- which covers behavior such as that of the "hostess" described in your letter.

I've been asked similar questions a few times lately, which leads me to believe that we're experiencing some horrible epidemic of dinner-party blackmail. I emphatically state for the record that in a check-splitting situation, the people involved are obligated to pay only for what they've eaten. If one person in the group is being treated to his or her meal, that cost might be split evenly among everyone else. If a check looks fairly evenly divided (or for a family-style meal), a group of friends might decide simply to divide the check by the number of diners. But if we're splitting a check, I shouldn't expect someone I barely know to contribute to the expense of my rich tastes in wine and appetizers, when all she's eaten is an $8 salad.

So, JoAnn, you're not wrong to feel abused. I know this is a bittersweet victory, seeing as how there are all these hurt feelings and sundered friendships -- stemming from something that should have been a pleasant event (a birthday party, for heaven's sake). I can think of only one argument in favor of the inequitable check split: convenience. To those who complain that precise check-splitting is too complicated, I point to the above letter. Which is trickier, a little simple math or a whole passel of hurt feelings and damaged friendships?

I wish it weren't necessary, but the next time you're invited to this type of dinner party, you might ask, "So we're splitting the check? We'll each pay for our dinners and split the cost of [the birthday girl's] dinner?" If the answer is anything other than yes, you'll at least be able to make an educated decision about whether or not you want to attend.

Dear Social Grace,
One of my friends has recently started dating a woman I particularly dislike. I would like to continue to invite him along to various social get-togethers, but I no longer do because I feel obligated to invite his girlfriend, too. Is there any way of politely inviting one without the other? Or is it just unacceptable to invite only one to a casual dinner, for example?

Via the Internet

Dear Madam or Sir,
Of course you may invite only your friend to the occasional "friends-only" event. "Friends' night out" is a time-honored tradition (though folks in new relationships don't generally need as much time alone with their friends as those in older relationships, so you might have to wait till this couple's ardor wanes a bit). Or you might conspire to get your friend alone by providing "one extra ticket" to a special event of some kind. But a casual dinner party is fair game for couples. If these two are operating socially as a pair, you are required to treat them as such, no matter how much you dislike the girlfriend, no matter that the very sound of her voice makes you long for the eternal silence of the grave.

I'm sorry if you'd hoped for a different answer. Etiquette serves to help people get along, and pointedly not inviting this girlfriend to dinner would only make things uncomfortable for everyone concerned. Luckily, etiquette also makes it easier to deal with people who, for whatever reason, rub us the wrong way. Try treating this unpleasant girlfriend with every courtesy, and you might find that she becomes more tolerable.

Dear Social Grace,
I was watching an episode of
The Golden Girls in which Blanche's father dies. Not wanting Blanche to fly back home alone, Dorothy insists on accompanying her. Although the show never mentioned it, I was wondering, in that type of situation does Dorothy pay for her own ticket or would Blanche offer to pay?

Via the Internet

Dear Madam or Sir,
We've got a restaurant-extortion epidemic on our hands, and we're asking Social Grace to solve the etiquette dilemmas of television characters -- from shows running only in reruns, at that? There's hardly time, but since funerals happen in real life, too, the answer might prove beneficial to people of a more three-dimensional nature. Blanche is not obligated to pay for Dorothy's ticket -- because she did not invite Dorothy. Dorothy invited herself to the funeral (and in many cases funeral services are open to anyone who wishes to pay his or her respects, regardless of his or her relation to the deceased). I'm sure that the scene in which Dorothy insisted on buying her own plane ticket ended up on the cutting-room floor -- another example of why getting manners guidance from sitcoms is a bad idea.

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