Sunday, January 29, 2017

How much to cry over drunken wine

Once a month, a group of long-time friends makes a point of meeting one another for lunch at a downtown restaurant. A few weeks ago, the four friends met at a sizeable new upscale eatery that had taken over the entire food court of a shopping mall in the middle of the city near where each of them live. The new place isn't really one restaurant, but a grouping of different types of food purveyors -- some sit-down restaurants, some small fresh food shops, a few aisles of groceries, and assorted other merchants.

After meeting at the mall, their first goal was to decide where to eat. They chose one of the small sit-down restaurants. They received menus, studied them, and then prepared to place their orders. Each of them chose to order a glass of wine to accompany her meal. After the first three ordered, the last of the friends requested a glass of merlot. The waiter responded that they didn't carry merlot, but that he'd be glad to serve her a comparable substitute. She agreed.

When the orders came, the merlot seeker took a sip of her wine. It was not quite the type of wine she typically enjoyed, but after being encouraged by her friends to send it back if she didn't like it, she decided to keep it.The friends ate their meals, catching up with one another throughout.

Finally, when the bill for the meal arrived, the merlot seeker was surprised that while her friends' glasses of wine were each $11, the wine that the waiter had chosen for her as a substitute for merlot was $19.

"Instead of choosing something for me that resembled a merlot," she writes, "it seems clear that he decided to sell me one of the more expensive glasses on the menu."

Even though the merlot seeker offered to pay a bit more for her share of the bill, her friends told her not to be ridiculous and that they'd split the bill evenly four ways as was their custom.

"Now, I think I should have said something to the waiter," she writes. "Was I wrong not to?"

She wasn't wrong not to say anything at the time if she chose not to. But it also would not have been inappropriate to broach the topic with the waiter.

The right thing, however, would have been for her to ask the waiter what wine he was recommending after he made the offer and to ask him to show it to her on the menu. Doing it that way might have made her feel less self-conscious than asking about the price, although it would have been fair for her to do that as well.

The waiter should have offered to show her the wine on the menu without her having to ask, or to tell her the price. That would have been the right thing to do and it would have enhanced the possibility that the friends would be return customers. She drank it, so she paid for it. But their next gathering, she says, will be someplace else. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


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