Monday, December 14, 2009

But I Only Had Water - How To Split The Bill And Stay Friends

Several years ago, I attended a birthday dinner for a close friend at a high-end restaurant of her choice. There were about 20 people at the table, half of whom I didn't know. At the time, I was trying to dig myself out of debt and had a very limited entertainment budget. Accordingly, I ordered one glass of wine and a small salad. Other guests ordered expensive entrees and, while some asked for appetizers "for the table", I made sure I didn't touch them as I was short on cash. When the waiter brought our group cheque, the person on my right (a stranger to me) grabbed it first and it gradually made its way around the table with each person putting in what they felt they owed.

When it finally came back to me, I put in my fair share and counted the large wad of cash in the billfold. To my horror, I realized that it was $30 short of the total, even before the tip was factored in. I got the group's attention and suggested that perhaps some people had forgotten to put in their share of the tax, tip and contribution to the birthday girl's meal. I was met with blank stares, awkward glances and a few murmurs that a couple of people had left early. After an interminable silence, a precious few of us cobbled together enough money to make up the difference and leave a decent, although not generous tip. While I was never able to prove it, I'm convinced that one or two of the guests contributed nothing at all and the whole experience left a very bad taste in my mouth.

I'm sure this scenario, or elements of it, are familiar to anyone who has ever dined in a group and it provides an opportunity to explore several dining etiquette questions: If someone organizes and hosts a dinner, who pays? Is it okay to establish how the bill will be handled at the beginning and ask for separate cheques? Should the bill be split evenly or according to what people owe? What is the appropriate protocol when everyone has contributed and there's still not enough?

Unfortunately, this is one of those murky etiquette areas where there is no correct answer, no Emily Post dictate from on high to reassure us that we're right and everyone else is wrong. It's really a question of the occasion, the group, precedent, and how well everyone knows each other. Sadly, group dining also involves facing up to some unpleasant human truths like the fact that, when we find ourselves confronting the honour system, not all of us will rise to the occasion and behave honourably.
Everyone has different beliefs about money and everyone feels strongly about it. My mother's theory was "it's made round to go round" but you might feel that "a penny saved is a penny earned". After more than 20 years on the group dining circuit, my personal theory is that every circle of friends includes a cheapskate. He's the one who whips out his calculator when the bill comes, doesn't have any cash on him when you're filling the car for a weekend trip, or always offers to bring the soft drinks to a pot luck dinner. Fiscal beliefs run deep and chances are remote that this person will change his ways and start throwing money around. But, he may have many other wonderful qualities. You need to decide if your friendship is more important than the fact that he has trouble parting with funds, and if it is, accept it and move on.
Does the host pay for everyone? There is an etiquette guideline about restaurant meals and that is, the person who does the inviting is the one who pays. While this might be clear in a business setting between two people, it's a bit murky in a social setting where someone might take responsibility for organizing a dinner get-together but has no intention of covering the cost. In this case, if you're concerned about how the bill will be divided, bring it up with the organizer before hand.
Do honourees pay for themselves? Although there's no firm rule, it's generally accepted that, when the occasion is a celebration of a birthday or other anniversary, the person being feted will be treated by the others. If this is the case, it's essential to ensure before the meal start,s that the other guests know they need to factor a percentage of her meal, tax and tip into their contribution. The easiest way to handle it is for the other guests to split the bill evenly, in which case the guest of honour can offer to perhaps provide the tip...or not.
When should you split the bill evenly? My belief is if this is a group of friends or family that you dine with often, or even a group that includes some strangers, every bill should just be split evenly to avoid awkwardness. Life is too short and the hope is that it will all even out over time. As they say, sometimes you're the windshield and sometimes you're the bug. When the cheque is placed on the table someone needs to take charge, calculate the total including tax and tip and let everyone know how much they owe. Clean, simple and hassle-free!
But what if I only had a salad? This is where it gets tough. Some people routinely eat more than others. Some drink alcohol with every meal. Some never order dessert...and so on. There's no question that splitting a bill evenly favours the big eaters and drinkers and punishes those who didn't consume much. I have a friend who always orders less than everyone else and, when the bill comes, she takes it and announces what she owes and plunks down exactly that much in cash. The rest of us, who are not so concerned, usually split the remainder between us and we get back to the socializing part of the evening, which, after all, is why we're there. You could try this approach, or, you could follow the advice of another friend of mine who, after being repeatedly 'burned' by splitting the bill evenly, came up with her own system. When she arrives at a group dinner, she always asks the waiter for a separate bill on the pretense that she might have to leave early. Sometimes she does leave early and sometimes she stays till the end but she never pays more than her share.
If you're only paying your share, only eat your share - Some people want to have their cake and eat it too - literally. They order very little and only pay for what they actually ordered when the bill comes, but during the meal, they have no problems taking that last piece of bruschetta from the platter or dipping their fork into someone else's dessert. If you insist on just paying for what you ordered, you can't partake of the communal plates, lest you want to become the subject of negative post-dinner gossip.
Choose with care - If you are organizing a group dinner, you need to take into account the economic situations and desires of your guests. Chances are you guests are experiencing a wide range of fiscal realities. Some may be flush with cash and others could be unemployed or have fiscal obligations that you don't have. If you choose a high-end restaurant, be prepared for the fact that it might be difficult for some guests to attend. If you are a guest in this situation, it's okay to call up the organizer and let her know that you would love to go but you can't afford it. Maybe she'll offer to treat you, or maybe not.
Honesty is the best policy - If you're the big eater/drinker in the group and find yourself in a situation where the bill is not being split evenly, PAY YOUR SHARE. It's very poor etiquette to expect others to fund your hunger (or gluttony). Ante up and put in an extra share of the tip since the wait staff probably had to do more work for you. Believe me, nobody likes a mooch!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Getting Through The Holidays With Class

Yes, it's that time of year again - a time of goodwill towards our fellow citizens, a celebration of family, a time when enemies lay down their swords and remember what's important in life. Or is it? While we all yearn to buy into the spirit of the holidays, for many of us, the festive season is too often characterized by roasting hot malls, drunken uncles, and gatherings we would rather not attend.

When people ask me about holiday etiquette, they're usually confused about the need to do something out of a misplaced sense of obligation. The truth is, the holidays ought to be fun and if you can manage your expectations and not get caught up in what you should do, or worse still, what others should do, you might just enjoy it better. Here are my answers to your top holiday etiquette questions.

Do I have to give (insert name here) a gift? -There is no rule that says you must give any other adult a present. Try to discuss with your spouse, family members and friends ahead of time how you are going to approach gift-giving and stick to the agreed-upon guidelines. Other than that, give someone a gift because you want to and give only what you can afford. Don't give to anyone with the expectation that you will get one in return. And, if someone gives you an unanticipated gift, there is no need to reciprocate. A simple thank you is good enough.

Do I have to participate in the office gift pool? - These things should always be optional. If you're organizing a Secret Santa, please let everyone know that it's optional and don't pressure anyone to join in. If you find you're the only person in your workplace of 20 employees who is not participating, you might change your mind but it's still up to you. If you want to give some co-workers a gift separately, do so in private.

Do I need to go to every party? - I have a rule about party invites. If I look ahead and feel that, on the day of the party, I will regret accepting the invitation, I politely decline. The truth is, I can't attend everything and so I ask myself if I enjoy the company of the host, if it's close to my house, or if attending will add to my stress level. No host will benefit from having me at their gathering if I really don't want to be there. On the flip side, if you are hosting a party, in either a business or social setting, invite as many people as you like but accept that not all will be able to attend. No one should feel forced to come to your gathering and if someone sends their regrets, it is not appropriate for you to ask why, offer to reschedule or try and coerce them to attend.

Do I have to go to the office party? - My inclination is to say "no" because all parties should be optional but you really have to gauge the culture at your workplace. In a previous job, I once decided not to attend the office holiday party because at the time, I had expressed displeasure with some new office policies and I felt it was hypocritical to raise a glass to people with whom I was currently at odds. While I kept my integrity intact, I paid for my decision for weeks afterwards as it was made clear to me, and everyone else in the company, that attendance at future holiday events would be obligatory.

Do I have to tip or give bonuses? - While there is no official obligation, if there is someone in your life - a hairdresser, caregiver or delivery person - who has served you especially well in the past year, a holiday tip or gift is a lovely way to express your thanks for a job well done. Again, think about who you would like to thank and give what you can afford in the form of baked goods, cash or a gift card. This website has guidelines on what to tip everyone from your building superintendent to your personal assistant. Note: if you are an employer and have given bonuses in the past but can no longer afford to do so, please let people know in advance. Many rely on these to cover holiday expenditures.

Do I have to take my shoes off at holiday parties? - I have to admit this is a tough one for me and I have declined invitations because of it. As a female, I choose my holiday party ensembles carefully and removing my beautiful stilletos just wrecks the whole look leaving me with pants that are too long and socks that just don't cut it. Plus, a few hours of standing on hardwood or ceramic tile really takes a toll on my poor feet. If footwear is not welcome at a party, it should be clearly stated on the invitation and if it isn't, call the host and ask for clarification. If you are throwing a party and would prefer your guests to remove their shoes, make it easy for them - thoroughly clean your floor or carpet before their arrival and place baskets or racks in the doorway so they are not forced to pick through a mountain of dirty footwear when they want to leave.

Do I need to bring a gift for the party host? - It is not a rule that you must bring something but it is a nice way to recognize your host's hospitality. As with all things, make it easy for your host to accept your gift. If you bring fresh flowers, bring them in a vase so they can be easily displayed. Your host will be too busy greeting her guests to look for a vase. Similarly, feel free to bring wine or treats but don't expect that they will be served that evening as they may clash with what she has prepared. I like to bring something the host can enjoy the day after the party like bubble bath, a houseplant or some organic coffee.

Is there such a thing as parking lot etiquette? - Parking lot etiquette should be general etiquette - an awareness of the feelings of others - but it's more often frustration and indifference that too often balloons into rage. If you've left your shopping till the last minute, accept the fact that it will take you a while to find a spot and make a resolution to get ahead of the game next year. While you need to drive around and look for a spot, try not to tail people who are walking to their cars - it's creepy (and embarrasing if, like me, you can't remember where it is)! When you see someone who is ready to pull out of a spot, indicate that you're waiting for it and pull in when it's clear. If you see a spot that another motorist is patiently waiting for it, don't swoop in and steal it at the last minute. And, please don't ever park one car in two spots. While I don't condone vandalism, you get what you deserve if people choose to vent their frustrations on your vehicle.

Is it okay to send a form letter in my holiday card? - Personally, I don't like this approach. It's highly impersonal and it usually comes across as a one-sided laundry list of everything that's happened in the past year delivered without any of the appropriate context or nuances. Besides, we send people cards to wish them well, not to talk about ourselves. Rather than blasting out a form letter to hundreds of people, take the time to send cards only to people you're close to, with brief, but personalized messages.

How can I get through the holidays? - It's been said that stress is the result of a gap between our expectations and our reality and no time is that more evident than during the holidays. No matter how hard you try to make everything perfect, there will always be something that won't go according to plan. I'm not saying you should have zero expectations but just do your best and go with the flow, accept the craziness, and, if all else fails, drink and eat your way through it and watch National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation - your family will seem like the very epitome of civility compared to the Griswold clan.

Wishing my readers a beautiful, civil and enjoyable holiday season!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

How May I (Not) Help You?

This is a blog about business etiquette but I often use it as an opportunity to muse (rant) on the sorry state of what passes for customer service these days. And why not? The definition of etiquette is to have an awareness of the feelings of others and how your actions might have an impact on them. If that's not an apt definition for customer service then I don't know what is.

A recent shoddy customer service experience got me thinking about the customer service practices that have the most destructive effect on my resting heartbeat. That's no short list of course but, after much internal debate, I managed to narrow it down to five. I'd love to hear what yours are as well.

1. Having to listen to advertisements for the very product/service I am unhappy with while I wait for assistance - To me, there is no greater arrogance than the assumption that unhappy clients want to listen to you trumpet the virtues of your product while they fume at the other end of the receiver. You know who you are telecom conglomorate!

2. Not being able to press zero immediately - I don't know about you but the first thing I do when I dial a 1-800 number is try to zero out to a live human but the systems are on to me and a friendly voice tells me in no uncertain terms that "that command is not available".

3. Punching in all of my details on the phone only to have the customer service rep ask me for them when he/she finally answers the phone. What was the point of me entering my 10-digit phone number and 15-digit credit card number if it disappears into obscurity?

4. Customer service reps who call me back and only leave their first name and no extension - Whenever this happens, I call the number only to have someone ask me for the full name of the person, which I, of course am unable to provide. The person on the phone then offers to help me but only if I repeat the same sorry lament I gave to the other person before.

5. No apology - How hard is it to tell an irate customer that you're sorry they had a bad experience? No matter how upset I am, if the first person I talk to apologizes, things seem to go well. On the flip side, my rage increases with each unapologetic person I talk to.