I have lunch about once a week with colleagues. It's fun and I like them, but they order higher-priced food than I do and then assume we're splitting the bill. I end up paying for more than I eat. How can I keep going to lunch but get them to pay their fair share?
Miss Otis regrets
Dear Miss Otis,
Good food, pleasant company, and the knowledge that you'd otherwise be missing important office gossip are all excellent reasons to dine with colleagues. Whether you have a working meal or a social one, breaking bread together has the potential to nourish a common bond and solidify relationships.
My People are constantly arranging luncheons for me with my friends, business associates, and investors, including a number of reclusive celebrities who turn up in elaborate disguises that draw extra attention to our party. These meals do marvelous things for my skin and my reputation, and there's always a little morsel for my dog Dickie.
That very blend of the social and professional makes delicate work of transactions. For one thing, cash is unsanitary. I cringe when I see money come into contact with an eating surface. For another, the complex collaborative mathematics that go on at the end of an otherwise fabulous dining experience can grow simply boring. Who ate what, how much did it cost, what is the meal tax in this state, does anyone have change for a fifty, are we leaving 15 percent or 20 percent in gratuity. I say: put the whole thing on my account and quick, driver, take me home.
In their haste to get around this postprandial stress, your coworkers have concluded that assigning an equal share of the bill to every person promotes office harmony rather than letters to advice columnists. Well, not exactly.
Continue to accept your colleagues' luncheon invitations, but have a plan. Set their expectations. Make sure they know you are looking forward to the restaurant for its delicious salads, or whatever other low-cost item you prefer to eat there. As your friends contemplate which wine will pair well with the sirloin steak in truffle sauce with a coulis of the rarest out-of-season vegetables, you politely suggest that it would be easier if the group got separate checks.
If you can't manage this at the table, do it in the office. Just be prepared to take some good-natured teasing on the way to the restaurant. A more direct approach would be simply to announce that you will be paying for the meal you order, and you hope it won't cause any problems. The answer to the inevitable questions is, "Because that's the way I've decided to do it now."
Of course, don't take advantage. If you partake of the various appetizers ordered "for the table," pay your fair share. If the group is treating a guest of honor, add your fraction of the cost of his or her meal to your total. In any case, round upward.
Businesspeople should understand that fabulousness entails shouldering one's fair share of costs rather than using the pretense of collegiality to distribute them to others. Once in a while, though - after you've accomplished something spectacular at the office, for instance, or when one of your friends has shown outrageous courage or courtesy - consider making the entire meal your treat.