I have a friend — not dissimilar from other friends — who, while recounting a dinner date, lamented something seemingly insignificant: the tip.
“Instead of getting the bill,” she said, “he just got the tip.” Her blood boiled. And ears perked; other similar women (Manhattan women) sat at the table. Heads nodded and eyes rolled in clear consensus. Just the tip, and not the whole bill?
When it comes to the bill for a first date, there may be no etiquette question more debated, and no etiquette solution more stubborn. In most heterosexual relationships, women expect, or hope for, the first date to be the man’s expense, and for the most part, men are up for the responsibility (or at least, that’s what a recent NerdWallet survey suggests, among others). The transaction has cultural roots: Once upon a time, most women did not have paying jobs, unlike men, who did. Men had paychecks; men paid bills. It was tidy logic. Yet in 2016, the de facto “I’ll get the bill” aplomb can go unspoken even by today’s forward, salaried women.
Is it fair? If women and men are equals, why is the first date — a supposed blank slate — lopsided? In the face of feminism, we rhapsodize over this anachronistic gesture. We read heated defenses, some untenable: It costs women more to dress and prep for dates, and paying for the first date is a “gesture to let [her] know you’re interested in them,” as if showing appreciation could or should be displayed via monetary transaction. Then we read opposing views in defiance: polls suggesting the majority of men wish women chipped in more on dates, or that some men might see the entire practice as an inherently dishonest abuse of dating (as if the practice of dating were built on honesty).
It’s bizarre logic that a man should pay because he’s a man and a woman should not pay because she’s a woman; in fact, that’s not even proper etiquette to begin with. Emily Post, the Baltimore-born author of 1922’s Etiquette (the touchstone literature on the subject), long ago proposed the idea that the person who asks for the date pays for the date. I spoke with Post’s great-great-granddaughter, Lizzie Post (whose podcast, Awesome Etiquette, is worth a listen), who says the same etiquette applies today. In the upcoming 19th edition of Etiquette, which Lizzie will coauthor, the mantra is the same: if you ask for it, assume you’re paying for it.
“What has changed is that we no longer say women need chaperones; we promote that anyone can do the asking,” says Post.
And that almost seems fair, if not neutral, though even today it’s not an equal ask: More often, men are the first to make the move.
It gets even more complicated when you take gender out of the equation entirely: People are asking, well, people. Out for coffee at L.A.’s Grand Central Market, I asked the woman to my right: Do you think men should pay for the first date? Finn, 29, laughed. In fact, she laughed out loud. Her head shook. Her eyes rolled. “No,” said Finn, “I always split right down the middle, no matter what.”
It was absolute. Then she added: “But I also date women — I date men and women.”
Well, here’s the one argument that, in a culture that at least conceptually aims for equality, is rather indisputable: parity. Money matters. It’s a platitude that might live longer than chivalry. And there is this lingering notion that, until women are fully equal to men — until we live in a dollar-to-dollar culture, and both sides of the table are valued accordingly — that it’s not unreasonable for men, having a statistically stronger financial status, to take on a greater share of expenses in order to even them out.
The meal itself, the true cost of the date, costs the average woman more than the average man, financially speaking, when for the same work, the value of her earned dollar is a shameful $.79.
So let’s get back to this idea of the tip, perhaps the only dining etiquette question more cumbersome than figuring out who will pay the bill. We know that, assuming service was acceptable, a standard restaurant tip is 20 percent. We know that, according to recent figures, women make about 20 percent less for every dollar men make. If you’re looking for financial equality, maybe that’s the solution. Women: Take out your wallet and pay your share. Men: Pay her share of the tip; in that moment, it’s 20 percent that closes the gap.
On paper, or at least on the receipt, it shares the expense equally.