Ask The Salty Waitress: How to handle it when diners fight over the bill

Illustration for article titled Ask The Salty Waitress: How to handle it when diners fight over the bill
Graphic: Nicole Antonuccio | Photo: Teri Dixon/Getty Images

Congratulations, Salty readers. Because I received two questions that were related, you’re treated to a two-fer column today. Don’t skimp on the tip, sweetpeas.

Hi Salty,

I come from a pretty traditional Asian family which means it’s a big ol’ show over who gets to pay the check. Splitting the check isn’t an option since this whole process is both a sign of honor (apparently) but on the DL it’s a way to flaunt that you have the money to pay for a meal for the table. I’ve had family members snatch the check from each other’s hands (or our server’s hands!), pretend to go to the bathroom and covertly slip a credit card, even chase after the waitress to swap the card. It’s not just embarrassing, but I feel like it’s disruptive to the entire restaurant and kind of annoying. ​Beyond that, I’ve noticed later in their rush to pay for the check, we were overcharged because they didn’t check the receipt.

This is a culture thing, so I don’t really think there’s any way to change their mindset, but do you have any suggestions on how to be the first to pay for the bill without making it a whole thing?


Dear Tiffany,

You mention that this is a culturally tied thing for your family, so yeah, there’s probably no changing them. (Just like there’s no convincing my Aunt Susan that there is such thing as an “indoor voice.”)


I can see a few hypothetical solutions to your family’s dilemma, though. One, you could try to propose a rotating system where one person pays for a meal, then the next person pays next time, etc. (Why do I have a feeling that’s not going to fly?) Second, you could institute a rule against getting up from the table once the check is deposited. I feel like this is the line at which it really becomes disruptive—chasing a server down or slipping them a credit card while they’re busy with another task is a touch disruptive. Lastly, and if you insist on being the one to pay, you can call ahead to the restaurant and place your credit card on file. Ask them to still deposit you an itemized bill, but explain that there should be no other payment accepted and that your family should be told the meal’s been prepaid. You could also try to arrive at the restaurant before everyone else, hand your card to the manager, and explain the situation.

I get that it’s a cultural thing—it’s not something I’m familiar with, but I can empathize how humiliating it must be to lose face and status. But look at it this way: If you don’t win the race to slap down your credit card, the consolation prize is... (drumroll) not having to pay for a big, expensive group dinner. Doesn’t sound too bad to me, frankly.

Hi Salty,

I work in a casual Thai restaurant and most customers are lovely. Unfortunately, many are so lovely that they playfully bicker and argue about who should pay. We have a one-bill-per-table policy so people will try and compete for the moral high ground of covering the whole bill for the table. This often results in me being caught in the middle of their game at the counter as two or three people jam cards in my face. I’m all for people doing good deeds for their friends but would prefer they resolve these matters before I unwittingly have to play arbiter.

Is this really a problem or am I just a total grump?

Australian waiter at a Thai restaurant

Dear Aussie,

My sympathies. I know customers are just trying to be kind but dang if this situation isn’t awkward for servers, right? I picture my own experiences with this: I’m walking over to a table, fake leather check holder thingy in hand, and I see their eyes widen, arms start stretching, and wait is that guy foaming at the mouth? Holy shit. But this is kinda how it feels as a server, like you’re dangling a piece of meat over a lion cage and everyone wants it. It puts us in a really weird position of having to eventually “choose” the loudest, most insistent person— then duck and run.

You’re not wrong for thinking it’s awkward. I do, too. But remembering that people are coming from a kind place helps, mostly. I think a smile and some firm but polite words from you might do the trick: “Whoa, I don’t want to have to play referee for this battle. How about I go [do XYZ thing] and you let me know when you’re ready?” Hopefully the prospect of your leaving will spur someone into relenting, and make them realize that their back-and-forth is taking up your time.

I guess we can just consider today’s entire column a PSA to overly gracious diners everywhere: Your endless protesting and demands for the bill put servers in an uncomfortable place. Offer twice, and if the person who asked for the bill doesn’t give it up, you’ve gotta let go. You can promise to pick up the tab next time.


Got a question about dining out etiquette? Or are you a server/bartender with a horror story the world needs to hear? Email us:




In Korea, this rises to the level of bloodsport, but usually takes place at the counter. Only fine dining establishments take care of your bill at the table, and they expect a certain amount of decorum.
There are, however, rules, and they’re beyond the server’s ability to discern who should win. The rules give payment preference to the oldest and wealthiest, allowing for variation in case of 1) special occasions (your birthday, your treat; your promotion, your treat; etc.) or 2) a group of similarly aged friends. In general, the jostling for payment should be done after the check arrives but before you actually go up to pay. Don’t trust anyone who needs to go to the bathroom at any time during the proceedings, because they are definitely trying to steal the check.
If you’ve won the round, you are not allowed to compete in the next. If you get dinner, karaoke is on someone else. This of course also means incredible competition and/or sneakiness as people try to decide ahead of time which part of the evening will be most financially damaging. Which will cost more - dinner, or the coffee and dessert at the next stop? Will there be a singing room involved? Booze? If booze, what kind? These are delicate negotiations, and you definitely don’t want to skimp out on kimchi jjigae for all at dinner just to get slammed with a huge number of grande fraps at Starbucks. The idea is that it should all equal out in the end, but really to create a set of interlocking social debts you can never be free of.
From a servers point of view, your role is not arbitration. You simply take the first card on offer, or in case of a spat, the one nearest or most insistently offered.