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Sunday, February 24, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: LOOKING A GIFT DINNER IN THE MOUTH

The steak dinner was superb. There were no complaints about the food, the service or the company.

My reader was treating her daughter and son-in-law to a fancy meal, and everything went off without a hitch ... until the bill came. "I just glanced at the bill," my reader recalls, "and ran my eyes down it to make sure it was accurate before I gave the waitress my credit card."

That's when her son-in-law "barked softly," as she puts it.

"You are not supposed to check the bill, mom," he said. "It's unethical."

Having heard assorted horror stories about servers adding extra items to bills or getting the math wrong, my reader says, she usually double-checks her bill.

"Maybe guys find it awkward," she speculates.

She's noticed that, when her son-in-law is buying, he doesn't check the bill, no matter how many people are in the dinner party.

"He whips out his credit card," she says, "and gives it to the server right away without looking."

Figuring that she works hard for every dollar she earns, my reader believes that she should be able to check her restaurant bills for accuracy without having her ethics challenged.

"I would like to be able to tell my son-in-law that it is OK," she says, "that it is ethical and downright smart to check the bill, even briefly, for accuracy."

Of course it's OK to check your dinner bill when it comes. It's smart to make sure everything's correct, so that you don't have to deal with any problems later in the process.

What's baffling is why the son-in-law would even raise this as an ethical issue. Even if this is something that he happens not to do himself, what could possibly make him question his mother-in-law's ethics -- especially since she is, after all, treating him to dinner?

Aha! It's something that he thinks she shouldn't do because he doesn't. That's the issue. He finds her examination of the bill embarrassing -- perhaps he thinks it makes them look cheap or implies that they don't trust the waitress -- but, instead of telling her that, he elevates the behavior he finds disagreeable to an ethical breach.

There's a far cry between something that we merely don't like and something that's unethical. Sometimes the stuff we don't like is simply stuff we don't like. Not everyone can or should be expected to behave the same way that we behave.

My glib advice to my reader was that, the next time her son-in-law raises such an issue, she should hand over the bill to him and let him pay. If he's so troubled by her sensible behavior, let him do it his way.

She doesn't want to cause any unnecessary tension among the three of them, however -- "I love them too much," she says -- so my reader won't take that step.

The right thing for my reader to do, then, is to continue to discreetly check her restaurant bills, if that practice gives her comfort. And the right thing for her son-in-law to do, after he's finished his 28-ounce, prime Porterhouse steak, when the check arrives and his mother-in-law dons her reading glasses to do a quick double-check of the bill, is to lean forward and say, "Thanks, mom, for the terrific meal."

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

12 comments:

M. Lawrence said...

I couldn't agree more with your advice, but am writing to add that just a week ago a friend and I were presented the restaurant bill from a different table. The one we were given was about half of what we owed. I always check the bill and gave it back to the waitress to exchange with the other table who, presumably, checked theirs too - or if they didn't would have appreciated that we did. I, too, am mystified where this son-in-law gets the idea that not checking the bill shows lack of ethics instead of lack of common sense.

Anonymous said...

You forgot one thing, that may have made the son-in-law unethical... What if something you ordered is not on the bill. My friends and I have a difference of opinion on this, big-time. I believe that if something is not on the bill, it is in my best interest to bring it to the server's attention, and get the bill modified. I believe that not doing so is theft. I believe that if I get my bill corrected, that the costs at that restaurant should stay lower, and that the server will get the tip deserved. I also believe in karma, and if I do not take what is not mine, this will come back to me (and I believe it has).

But yes, even in this day and age of computerized bills, mistakes are still made, both ways.

Mary Freesmeyer
Columbus, Ohio

Anonymous said...

You should always check the bill. Only a pomp0us idiot trying to act like a big shot would not. Years ago I had a tip altered after signing off on a credit card. I discovered this while reconciling my monthly credit card bill. It wasn't much, but I had my original receipt. The service had been lousy and my tip was intentionally appropriate. When I complained to the restaurant, I was given credit and a future dinner and drinks for two on the house. I was also informed that the restaurant had had similar problems with their "ex-employee." When I used my freebie, my date had to be impressed as we had the best of everything that the restaurant had to offer. I was steamed and had no compunction about ordering with out regard to price.

Anonymous said...

That son-in-law was VERY wrong. He is not smart. Here are some reasons to check the bill:

1) We have been handed bills that were for another person (not even someone we knew).

2) We have been charged for items that we did not order or for things we never received.

3) Need to check to in order to know the amount to tip.

I am sure that I could think of other reasons but these are 3 I thought of as I read the article.

I see nothing "unethical" about looking and he was VERY rude to say anything!

Martha Reissig

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey,

Of course I look at the bill when the waiter or waitress presents it. I don't know about the son-in-law, but I want to know not only if something is on it that shouldn't be there, but also whether they've left anything off. Such as that second bottle of wine which will come out of the server's paycheck if I don't catch it.

I've done that before and when I've returned I and my party or date have received outstanding service. It pays to be honest whether you're either overcharged or undercharged.

I also look at the bill to determine thether I'm going to pay in cash or with a credit card. If it's less than expected and I have the cash, I prefer to pay in cash rather than run up my credit card bill.

I also like looking at the bill to determine in advance how much I should tip. Doesn't the son-in-law in your column tip?

I'd also be interested to know if he checks the bill before paying when he picks up his car at the mechanic's shop.

It seems to me that he's merely trying to impress people by showing that money and the amount of the bill are of no concern to him. He sounds like the fool who ran up a $50,000 bill on his credit card in a strip joint a few months ago and is now trying to get out of it.

Burl Estes
Mission Viejo, CA

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeffrey,

I enjoyed your article on checking or not checking a restaurant bill. I thought, however, that you might have been just a tad lukewarm in your support of the mother-in-law.

I always check the bills I receive before paying them, whether restaurants or otherwise. I seems to me it is only good sense to check a bill before paying it, and I find it quite odd that someone would be embarrassed about that.

I don't find a lot of errors on restaurant bills, but interestingly, I find about as many undercharges as overcharges, and I politely report them all to the server. You can probably imagine the surprise and gratitude on the part of the server when I point out that I have been undercharged. Occasionally I have been given someone else's bill as well.

Finally, I lived abroad for seventeen years and traveled extensively in many countries. I can tell you that in some countries you better check the bill carefully since they may be riddled with errors. And it's strange how in some countries they were ALWAYS in the restaurant's favor!

Thanks for writing interesting, thought provoking, and honest articles (something I unfortunately no longer expect from the Times).

Ray Snyder

Anonymous said...

I BELIEVE THE clod WHO CRITICIZED HIS MOTHER-IN-LAW HAS BEEN, (TO-DATE) VERY LUCKY. EITHER HE IS VERY FORTUNATE TO HAVE NOT BEEN TAKEN FOR THE DOLT HE IS OR IS VERY RICH NOT TO HAVE NOTICED HE MAY HAVE SIGNED AWAY HALF OF HIS BANK ACCOUNT.

I CHECK MY BILL TO MAKE SURE THERE HAS BEEN NO MISTAKE, PRO OR CON. IT IS NOT UNUSUAL FOR THE WAITER TO MISS CHARGING FOR SOMETHING ORDERED AND DELIVERED BUT NOT CHARGED.

NORM MARCOVITCH
LAGUNA WOODS, CA.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Seglin,

Just a brief comment about the son-in-law of the woman who chided her about checking the restaurant bill... He's an idiot!

On more than one occasion, I have been given the wrong bill for an entirely different dining party and, had I not checked it, I would have been paying for more people, more expensive dinner fare, or drinks up the ying yang.

The son-in-law should have been happy that his mother-in-law is so careful; it's probably what allows her to take the likes of him out to dinner in the first place!

CBahti, Orange County, CA

Anonymous said...

Mr Seglin,

I enjoy reading your column. There have been times I have wanted to write you to comment on something in the column, but I never have before. I was particularly interested by the reader asking about checking the restaurant tab before paying it.

Of course I thought you were spot on! (Obviously, her son-in-law has never worked in a restaurant before!)

But, we have an additional, ethical reason to check the tab. We always check the bill to ensure that we have been charged for everything we ordered. We often dine in a large group, where each couple gets a separate check. We may share appetizers or drinks with others at the table, so we want to ensure that we are properly charged for all that we ordered. Sometimes we have found an item of ours was put on someone else’s check. Or, as can happen with a large group, the server may have forgotten to add an appetizer we ordered later or the last drink we were served. We are happy to check the tab before paying it!

Thanks for bringing these issues to the table, as it were!

Katie & David Rowswell
Columbus, OH

Anonymous said...

In response to your article of 2/24/08, I would like to add that looking at the bill makes sure they did not forget to charge for something as well as not overcharging. I have experienced this before. My ethics are that I would not want to leave without paying for something. You are correct in my mind that the son-in-law was way out of line in his remark.

Sincerely,
Shirley Moses
Columbus, OH

Anonymous said...

When I read this article, I could not believe that anyone would not check their tab. I have noticed that more restaurants are now routinely adding gratuity to the tab and the first thing I check is whether the tip is already added in. I then check to see if my tab reflects the meal(s) I had. It would be easy to leave a tip on top of the one already added to the bill if your check is not reviewed.

Recently several of us ate at a restaurant that automatically added the gratuity. The waitress had put all of our meals on one tab and when we requested the checks be split out, somehow the tip for everyone's meals ended up on my check. As the others had no tips added onto their tabs, they had all added their tips individually. When I realized their tips were being paid by me, we all gave our tabs back to the waitress and had to re-do everything to split the tips out correctly. Obviously, not checking my tab would have resulted in my being quite generous to the others at the table. I cannot imagine any reasoning for not checking a restaurant tab. It is not being unethical - it is being smart!

Anonymous said...

DEAR JEFFREY SEGLIN: I FEEL I HAVE TO RESPOND TO YOUR RECENT ARTICLE ABOUT SCRUTINIZING A BILL IN A RESTAURANT BEFORE PAYING IT AND ESPECIALLY THE "PROSPECTIVE SON IN LAW'S" FEEBLE REASONS WHY DOING SO IS "CHEAP AND EMBARASSING".. SEVERAL WEEKS AGO I CELEBRATED MY 80TH BIRTHDAY. MY WIFE ARRANGED A DINNER FOR THE OCCASION FOR A PARTY OF TWELVE CLOSE FRIENDS. AFTER DINNER AND DRINKS, WE WERE PRESENTED WITH THE BILL WHICH WAS APPROXIMATELY $400. THE BILL CONTAINED A LINE WITH THE TOTAL COST FOOD AND DRINKS, A BLANK LINE FOR THE TIP AND OF COURSE A BLANK LINE FOR THE AMOUNT WE WOULD PAY. WHEN MY WIFE SHOWED IT TO ME I SUGGESTED THAT SHE ADD A 20% TIP. BEFORE LEAVING, WE WERE PRESENTED WITH A LONG PRINTOUT OF THE INDIVIDUAL COSTS OF EACH DINNER AND DRINKS WHICH I PLACED IN MY POCKET WITHOUT LOOKING AT IT. THE NEXT DAY WHEN I CHECKED THE BILL IT REVEALED THAT THE RESTAURANT HAD ALREADY INCLUDED A 15% TIP TO THE TOTAL BILL AND WE, UNKNOWINGLY HAD ADDED ANOTHER 20% TIP ON TOP OF THAT. UPON SEEING THIS I BECAME IRATE AND WANTED TO RETURN TO THE RESTAURANT AND COMPLAIN TO THE MANAGEMENT FOR WHAT I THINK IS A DECEPTIVE PRACTICE SINCE WE WERE NOT INFORMED OF THIS BEFOREHAND. BUT, MY WIFE DISSUADED ME FROM DOING SO. I THINK THAT A TIP OF APPROXIMATELY $160 IS EXCESSIVE FOR TWO SERVERS SERVING FOURTEEN PEOPLE, DON'T YOU?? SO, YOU CAN BET THAT FROM NOW ON I WILL CHECK ALL BILLS AND RECEIPTS AT RESTAURANTS AND STORES AND "NOT GIVE A DAMN" ABOUT FEELING CHEAP OR EMBARASSED. PERHAPS THAT LADY'S PROSPECTIVE SON IN LAW NEEDS A LESSON LIKE THIS TO REALIZE THAT THE GUY WHO COINED THE PHRASE "CAVEAT EMPTOR" REALLY KNEW WHAT HE WAS TALKING ABOUT..

JOHN
FOUNTAIN VALLEY, CA