Who Picks Up the Bill These Days?

On a recent Friday at a Drumcondra restaurant, a waiter moves from table to table as his manager slowly pours glasses of wine at the bar.

We sit outside, and order two beers and two mains, decline dessert, and request the bill in unison. The waiter returns and places it in front of me.

I place my card on the tray, and leave the tray in front of my girlfriend. When the card machine appears, the waiter picks up the card, slots it in the machine, and hands it back to me.

“I’ll just assume that you’re the responsible adult,” he says.

My girlfriend’s mouth is rounded with indignation.

Perhaps, he saw my name on the card? Perhaps this is “benevolent sexism”? Or both?

The Rules

In times past, it might have been taken for granted that a guy would pick up the bill. But that seems to have changed, or to be changing at least.

It’s industry best practice to hand the bill, and the card machine, to whoever requests it, says Adrian Cummins, head of the Restaurants Association of Ireland. He’s surprised to hear of any accounts of handing the bill to the guy straight away.

“That’s all new to me now,” he says. But “I think the vast majority [of men] will pay the bill. I think it’s Irish mentality.”

Some restaurant managers also say it’s not an issue they encounter much. “It’s not a problem, as such,” says James Ure of Gallaher’s Bistro on D’Olier Street. “Normally we’d just give it to whoever ordered the bill.”

Jack Fox, co-owner of Bread & Bones on Millennium Walk, agrees. “To be honest, we don’t have a policy on it. If someone asks for it, we’ll generally give it to them. If no one asks for it, we’ll just put it down in the middle of the table.”

But the who-gets-the-bill issue is something he’s noticed raised on social media, he said.

“As a restaurant manager and a restaurant owner, you monitor what’s being said on Twitter, not just about your restaurant, but about dining out in general,” Fox says. “Over the last few years I’ve definitely noticed people commenting on it, particularly women saying, ‘Why?'”

“Benevolent Sexism?”

For some, the answer is that there’s still a presumption that guys will buy dinner.

“I think, I don’t know whether it’s the correct thing or not to say, but women would expect men to pay the bill,” says Cummins. “It’s usually tradition. It’s what makes us Irish I’d say.”

But Matthew Hammond, a post-doctoral scholar in social psychology at University of Illinois, says it’s an example of what some call “benevolent sexism”.

It’s a term coined by social psychologists Susan Fiske and Peter Glick in the 1990s, and it covers the assumptions or beliefs that men ought to protect, provide for and care for women.

“The example of buying dinner is a good example because it captures how sexist attitudes can manifest in acts that are subjectively positive,” said Hammond, by email.

“For example, buying someone dinner is a nice act,” he said. “However, the presumption that men should buy dinner for women is different.”

It might not seem like a big deal, he said, but it can have knock-on effects.

“These expectations have been shown to undermine women’s competence, decrease people’s support for policies designed to increase gender equality in workplaces and political power, and justify more overtly hostile and aggressive sexist behaviours,” he says.

Testing, Testing

So how are other Dublin restaurants and bars doing?

On a recent Monday evening at Featherblade on Dawson Street, the waiter leads my friend and I to a small, grey table near the front door and later returns to take our order.

We order a drink and steaks, decline dessert, and both, simultaneously, request the bill from the waiter.

At a nearby table, another couple have just finished dessert. The man orders the bill and it’s promptly plopped in front of him.

Ours, however, is not. The waiter can’t decide who it should go to. We both ordered it at the same time after all. In the end, he puts it between us, in the centre of the table.

Taking out my card out as surreptitiously as possible, I place it in the glass holding the bill. The waiter then returns, takes the card without checking the name upon it and hands the machine straight to my friend. She indicates I’m the one paying but thanks the waiter for not assuming.

Afterwards, we head to the nearby swanky Shelbourne Hotel. Waiters flap about the bar, visitors arrive on business or for vacation. An assortment of unloved nuts sits in a bowl at our table.

We order a drink, and leave little time for lingering as my friend orders the bill. The waiter returns and places it in front of her. He does the exact same with the card machine.

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Cónal Thomas: Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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