Birds of a feather when it comes to friends and money: Who foots the restaurant bill?
When I started college, I noticed an odd thing in regards to first-year college roommates. They all seemed to have been placed together based on height. All pairs were either 5’4’’ or 5’7”. It couldn’t be a coincidence. Indeed many decades earlier, researchers (Berkowitz, 1969) found that indeed friends are similar in height. I suppose there are many reasons for such a similarity. For example, both can reach the same cookie dough, can wear the same traveling pants and can look each other in the eye. There is something, as George Bush noted, to be said about looking into someone’s eyes and seeing their souls. I still find it somewhat funny and weird to see a pack of friends that are all the same height. Whenever I see such a scene I think of the movie Heathers. That’s how it all starts, my friends. Same height –eventually a single-minded pack.
We talk about needing diversity in the workplace and on fictional television show friendships. There is the phenomenon of the Black Best Friend on television shows. There is also the phenomenon of how 1/4th of a band of friends is an ethnic minority (most likely black). Although, Friends and Seinfeld didn’t subscribe to that notion. Admittedly, as a Latina, I wonder when Hispanics will be included in such equations. Notably, the View just hired its first female hostess by bringing on Rosie Perez. This may be interesting. So, as a society we encourage diversity in groups in order to expand perspectives, sympathy and understanding. Psychological science points to the utility of such groupings (to a certain extent).
Now, however, there are some instances where diversity in friendship groups may be a bit uncomfortable. For instance, consider this question. What happens when the restaurant check is placed on the table and the group consists of vastly differing income brackets? The television show Friends tackled this issues a decade ago. I don’t think we are any clearer to a solution.
Over a decade ago, I made very little money. I will be frank with you as to how little. As a PhD individual in the middle of doing her post-doctoral training I made 33k a year. That was actually less than I had made previously as a paralegal. Even more sadly for me, my friends made about four times that amount. Going out on trips or out to restaurants was quite a situation. However, I never ever suggested that we each pay only what we had spent. I was determined to put in equal share of the bill. Stupidly I was concerned with “saving face” and “pulling my own weight.” A couple of times my way richer friends would offer to cover the bill in its entirety and I would be thankful although a bit uncomfortable. Furthermore, I was a social scientist addressing HIV/AIDS and they were Wall Streeters who felt slightly uncomfortable at the AIDS talk. After a while, we stopped going out as often.
Fast forward a decade and I am doing way better financially. Although, admittedly, I will never ever catch up to my Wall Street friends. But that is ok. I can hold my own and I am proud of my work. Furthermore, somehow my rich friends don’t feel as rich as they are saddled with a lot of fancy debt. It’s all about perspective.
Nonetheless, I now find myself in a reverse situation from a decade ago. I hang out with colleagues or friends that I have made in the non-profit field and when we go out to eat that salary difference rears its head again. This time I am the one that offers to cover the entire bill. Yet, it makes me uncomfortable. At times I feel that there is an underlying expectation that I pick up the bill as I am an executive manager, I make more money, I live in a double income household and so on. This is not necessarily an issue with my male friends and colleagues. It is more so when it is other females. I have slowly stopped offering to cover the whole bill. I believe in just again splitting the bill evenly. I do not care if they order three drinks and I order one. I’m ok with splitting it evenly and most people are ok with that.
A year ago, I was with a colleague who had overspent on a business trip and was quite distressed by that. One evening we got a bite to eat before heading off to our rooms to work. When the waitress came over and dropped the bill on the table, my colleague never noticed the bill was there. I eventually put my card down and the waitress charged me the whole bill. I had just really had a diet coke while my colleague had a whole meal. That was an awfully pricey soda for me. I didn’t say anything and that colleague then thanked me for getting the bill when they realized that it had been paid. I don’t say all this to complain about the person. I rather like this person. It is just an example of how dinners can be a financial and emotionally tangled minefield. It reminds me of when I was making a pittance of a salary and how uncomfortable I felt going out with my Wall Street friends. How often does the high earner of the group offer to cover the bill? Does it make the other individuals low wage earners) uncomfortable? I know that when I was in the extremely low-wage earner position(in comparison to my Wall Street friends), I eventually stopped going out with those friends that made 4-6 times my salary. I stopped eating out with them for other reasons as well. I sheepishly admit, I felt that I worked way harder than most of them and yet they earned way more. That there made me feel a bit angry and uncomfortable. I didn’t need a side reminder accompanying my dinner that life is unfair at times.
This leads me to wonder about diversity in income brackets and friendships. There are other things than salary that bind us as friends obviously. However, a restaurant meal can be a tricky minefield to navigate. Is this like the height phenomenon where like-minded friends are of the same height? Most certainly in our society there are differences by income bracket and friendships across economic strata are at times difficult to navigate. But when you start off as friends who are poor and then salaries start to diverge as career paths differ how do you maintain that friendship? Do you stay stuck in the memories of the past? Creating new memories without exposing economic differences is a worthwhile balancing act but it is a balancing act that can be at times emotionally taxing.