Doing the Splits

The article in Gourmet Traveller, Battle of the Bills, got me thinking about the culture around bill splitting and money in general. WASPs are often derided because of their alleged mean-spirited approach to paying the bill at the end of a group dinner out. You know how it goes- “I didn’t have the garlic bread…” and a dissection of the bill ensues with whipping out the phone calculator and furrowed brows. Even worse is when someone leaves the dinner early and deposits some notes on the table for their share except when the bill’s divvied up, somehow you’re $30 short.

What happens when cultures collide? In my experience, Spanish people as well as Chinese, are likely to make a grab for the bill and try to pay for it all, particularly if they suggested the dinner to begin with. WASPs are left pathetically proffering their bills which are batted away by the more determined payer. For some, this may be experienced as a nice windfall but for others it feels like things are out of balance- as if someone’s bought you a Christmas present and you didn’t buy them one. (Does anyone else keep a stash of generic gifts in the cupboard for such emergencies?)

It’s quite amusing to see who wins when a Chinese person goes up against a Spaniard – generally it depends on who is more devious or has greater muscle- or the longer arms. Pity the poor hospitality worker who is sometimes dragged in to referee an unwinnable situation.

I think there is also something more than ethnic culture happening in the bill-splitting arena. Different families and different generations have different attitudes to money. My parents lived through the Great Depression and so were green long before it was fashionable. Growing up we had it drilled into us to switch off lights in unoccupied rooms, rug up rather than use a heater & to share the bathwater – 3 inches of water, tops. While I’ve kept up the light-miserliness, I have confess to enjoying very deep baths (luckily for the drought, I don’t have a bath at my place L).

Research has shown that the “tightwads” outnumber the “spendthrifts” and they also feel pain when they spend money and pleasure when they are saving, so that quibble about the bill actually stems from trying to avoid pain!

Maybe there’s also the Aussie sense of egalitarianism at play here- if we each pay for what we had, then we’re even stevens.

It’s certainly easier to simply divide the bill into equal portions, but what if you’ve just ordered an entrée because you are on a low income and your friends on good salaries are ordering multiple cocktails? Should you have to put in $80 for your taramosalata?

So what is the answer to the bill-splitting dilemma? I try to put in enough to cover what I’ve had, plus a bit extra to make sure there’s enough for sometimes forgotten items, like corkage or that fifth margarita (kidding). And ideally enough for a tip as well- although that’s a whole other area. As for dealing with the person who always insists on paying, once you know their modus operandi, you just have to try to beat them at their own game.

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About Tanya

Tanya, MA Art Curatorship, Melbourne Uni
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