American in Spain

No, let me pay!

October 1, 2010
Fourteen Thousand Euros

There are many, many social customs that confuse the hell out of me, but one of the most strange is the insistence of adults to pay for each others' meals. In the US, when I would go out to eat with my coworkers, we'd always split the bill among everyone. Each person would pull out their credit card, and the waiter or waitress would give us each individual bills. Simple and fair.

In Spain, however, there is a big "buying rounds" culture that was very foreign to me at first. While this somewhat extends to meals, in Spain the "no, let me pay!" issue comes up more often with buying rounds of drinks. Due to the geographical layout of towns and the prevalence of bars, there is a big bar-hopping culture. So it's very common to visit several bars on a midday walk with your friends, and in each bar, only one person in the group pays for the drinks. It rotates at each bar, and if you go an outing or two without paying for any rounds, people notice. I'm fine with this. The drinks are so cheap and the company so good that I rather enjoy it. You pay for a round, and then it feels, emotionally, that you get a bunch of "free" drinks after that.

What I don't get is when people get insistent, or even angry, about the right to pay. This is not unique to Spaniards. Americans do this too, but mostly over whole meals, which is even stupider. First of all, let's admit that the person that pays for everyone's meal comes off worse than everyone else who just had a free meal. It's true. There may be some pride of "providing for loved ones" or something, but you're still out a bunch of money that no one else spent. Why would people fight over wanting to be the losing party? In Spain, I have seen people take the money someone else has put on the bar to pay and throw it on the floor, or forcibly put it in the attempted owner's pocket in order to pay themselves. So sacred is this "right to pay" that people go a little crazy. I've never seen it reach actual physical violence, but I've seen some nasty name calling.

I have friends with whom I have had dinner on half a dozen occasions, and they have insisted on paying every time. At some point it becomes insulting, like they think they are better than me or that I am too poor to pay. Ironically (or perhaps not), it's almost always someone poorer than me that exhibits this behavior.

How many times have you heard this conversation at a table when the bill arrives?

A: "I'll get this."

B: "No, let me pay."

A: "No, I'll pay."

B: "No, really, I'll pay."

A: "No, let me pay."

B: "No, I've got this."


It's fighting over who will have the "privilege" of leaving the restaurant with less money.

I absolutely refuse to participate in this bullshit. I've decided to no longer be insulted or feel guilty about letting you pay even when it's my turn. If you want to choose to be the loser in our social relationship, that's your prerogative.

My Policy

If you ever go out to dinner with me, and we aren't splitting the check, remember this:

I will offer to pay ONLY ONCE.

If you get to the bill first and declare you will pay for it, I will say, "No, let me pay," once. At that point, you can either agree to let me pay or not. If you say, "No, let me pay," after that, I will let you pay. Every time. This policy will result in one of three outcomes:

  1. You will always pay. I win.
  2. Eventually you will get tired of always paying and will accept my offer. We both win.
  3. You will become so annoyed with my unwillingness to ask to pay six times that you will stop going out with me. In which case perhaps we shouldn't be friends anyway.

Society has some truly ridiculous rituals, and this wallet martyring is one I will never understand.