It may be a cliché, but several years into my life in China it’s something that still vexes me to no end—splitting bills. For a lot of foreigners coming to China, this is Cultural Difference 101: Chinese usually treat each other to meals, while Westerns go Dutch. Within this system, I thought I’d gotten down all the rules and nuances; it was all pretty intuitive stuff:
1) Older pays for younger, men pay for women, asker pays for askee.
2) Nevertheless, whenever someone offers to pay the bill, fight them (physically if necessary) for the honor.
3) If you lose, you pick up the tab next time.
4) If someone says they have to “go to the bathroom” near the end of the meal, make sure they’re not sneaking over to pay the bill.
5) Feel free to split the bill if eating with coworkers or friends with whom you have an understanding.
But then, about a week ago, I found myself in an uncomfortable situation that nearly got me into a wrestling match. I was interviewing someone I’d just met and he suggested that we go out to a relatively expensive restaurant (it was five of us altogether, including a couple of his hometown buddies and my boyfriend). As we ordered, he kept insisting that we load on more appetizers and drinks. When the bill came, my interview subject had gone to the bathroom, and we gazed upon it in horror: it was nearly RMB800.
“Oh no,” my boyfriend looked stricken. “He’s trying to pay. Hurry, go with your card!”
I raced up to the counter waving my bank card. “Can I use this to pay?!” I cried desperately.
The waiter looked at me like a deer in headlines, then sprang into action. “I’ll go check!” he said. I waited around for a minute, and then I spotted my interview subject pulling out a credit card.
“No!” I said. “Let me!”
“I’ve got it,” he said, handing his card to the waiter.
“No, I should treat you,” I said, shaking the elbow of the waiter and trying to hand him my card. “You did me a favor by meeting me!”
“IT’S MY PLEASURE!” he roared, pushing my card away.
I went back to the table defeated, shrugging. As soon as I sat down, my boyfriend pressed a handful of cash into my hand. “Go,” he said.
There ensued another confrontation, which involved me shoving money in the guy’s face and him physically pushing me away. I tried to find a place in his clothing I could shove the cash, but to no avail—he was already signing the credit card slip. I went back to our table, humiliated and wondering if I’d done the right thing. Should I have tried harder? What are the rules with big bills or other gray area situations?
I consulted a group of Chinese colleagues to get the lowdown.
When to Offer to Pay
A good rule of thumb is that you should always offer—even if your friend invited you, or if you’re the younger, poorer party. It’s just good manners. But there are some caveats.
With someone older, like a family friend: When the bill comes, take out your wallet as if you’ll pay, but when they say they have it, don’t bother arguing and say thank you. If this is someone who habitually buys you meals and you want to say thank you, it’s best to sneak off and pay the bill near the end of the meal. This way you can avoid an embarrassing argument.
For someone’s birthday: Contrary to Western rules, the birthday girl or boy should pay for a birthday dinner. However, friends should all bring gifts to pay them back. Them’s the rules!
On a date: Gender equality doesn’t extend to romantic dinners in China. Girls need not even pretend as though they’re going for the bill—guys pay, and if a girl insists on paying, that means she’s not interested in the guy.
At a party for you: Moving out of town? Leaving your company? Let your friends buy you dinner; you’re not obligated to pay.
Business meal: This is a true standoff. Unless you’re doing someone a big favor by having a meal withthem (i.e. giving them advice or connections) you’ll likely be forced to fight over the bill. There are several factors to take into account: who asked and who accepted, whose turf you’re on, who wants what out of whom. This is a time to dig in your heels and make use of all your tricks.
How Far to Go
This is where it gets embarrassing. You want to put in enough fight to be polite, but not so much that you draw the attention of the whole restaurant.
How many times to offer: Twice. Possibly three times if the bill is expensive.
Whether to get physical: It’s best only to get physical (shoving and grabbing hands) with friends. Protest verbally and even gesticulate wildly with a business acquaintance, but don’t touch them. Also refrain from shoving money in someone’s pocket or sneaking it into their belongings. As one of my colleagues sensibly noted, “What if they just thought it was their own money?”
Secret payment: This move is best to use with acquaintances who you know will argue for the bill or for business meals. It usually isn’t necessary to use with friends unless you have a particularly determined friend who likes to pay every time.
What to Say When You’ve Failed
Well, you gave it your best shot, and you failed miserably. Now it’s time to take it like a man. Some polite phrases include:
Duōxiè nǐ, nǐ tài kèqìle.
Thank you so much, you’re too polite!
Xià cì wǒ qǐng nǐ ba.
Next time I’ll treat you!
Xià cì yīdìng ràng wǒ lái.
Next time definitely let me pay.
Then you should go ahead and hang your head in shame. Because you suck, you cheap failure.
Being polite is all well and good, but what do you do when someone is being downright rude?