Was it a Date? What Does it Mean if He Pays for Dinner?

OYO columnist Elyse StefaniakBy OYO columnist Elyse Stefaniak

It was 11:30 p.m. and the concert had just ended. My friends and I poured out of the venue, liberated of the damp claustrophobia. Zach, a friend of a friend, said, “I could really go for a burger right now.”

The group dwindled as we headed toward a nearby diner. Some people realized they weren’t “feeling a burger right now,” or they had other places to be. Suddenly it was only me and Zach — the guy I’d never met before that night — sitting down for dinner.

The conversation flowed naturally and we discovered we had a lot in common. We finished eating and the server nonchalantly dropped the check between us. I reached for my wallet out of habit — not because I wanted to pay (who wants to pay for dinner?) — but because I felt it was the socially appropriate gesture.

“I’ll cover it,” Zach said affably.

“No, that’s okay. I’ll get mine,” I replied, going through the ritual dance that often occurs in these situations.

Before that moment, it had not occurred to me that this might be construed as a date. If I’d really thought about it, I wasn’t interested in Zach romantically. Before I could analyze the repercussions of allowing Zach to pay for me, the server whisked the bill — and Zach’s credit card — away.

I didn’t acknowledge the awkwardness until Zach was signing the bill. I mustered a pitiful, “Thanks for dinner. You really don’t have to.”

I don’t want to perpetuate the unspoken code that when a man and woman eat together the man should always pay, but to be honest I was glad Zach persisted. Not because I’m financially unstable or dependent on a man for dinner (I promise, Beyoncé!), but when I was faced with the option of letting Zach pay or paying for myself, the first option just seemed easier in the moment.

Chivalry: For the Best or Put to Rest?

I brought this topic up with a group of girlfriends to get their thoughts.

My friend Melanie said that if Zach and I had split the check there would have been an off-chance it was a date.

“But since he paid it was a more overt sign that he had an agenda other than just being friends with you,” Melanie added.

So, then what? If I allow a man to pay for me, does it automatically mean I owe him something?

Many of my friends agreed that if you let a man buy you a meal, then at the very least, you should follow up and see him in the near future. If he buys you a drink or even just coffee, it’s up to you to decide.

A meal carries more signifying power than coffee? My head spins trying to decode brunch.

That doesn’t make sense to me. A meal carries more signifying power than coffee? My head spins trying to decode brunch.

My friend Sofia, a proud feminist, suggested otherwise: “It’s alright for another person to treat you in order to signal that you are special and worth time and money,” she said. “But I don’t ever feel like I ‘owe’ a guy anything because I could just as easily turn pay for him. He can buy me dinner, but he can’t buy me.”

“I prefer when a guy offers to split,” said Stephanie, almost indignant. “I believe he’s treating me as his equal, and things don’t feel as complicated.”

My friend Mary Margaret from South Carolina said when a guy doesn’t pay for her it signals that he’s “not a gentleman.” I asked how long into a relationship a man should pay for everything and Mary Margaret responded, “At least a year. I like being wooed.”

Alright, Cinderella. Good luck with that.

Expecting a similar response, I asked my mother for her thoughts. As a Midwestern girl brought up on traditional values, she surprised me.

She conceded that if I had grown up alongside her, Zach’s act of payment instantly would have meant the two of us were an item. But then she said that in today’s world, she wouldn’t read as much into it.

“Nowadays, the expectations of what the guy and girl should do aren’t as rigid,” my mom said.

While neither my friends nor my mom embraced this view, some women (perhaps those still riding the second wave?) don’t let anyone pay for them — they work hard for their money, damn it — and more power to them.

I prefer to be unapologetic as well, but not to such an extreme. What’s wrong with letting someone pick up the tab once in a while, even if he happens to be a guy?

An Unspoken Language

Fast forward about a month. I’ve seen Zach intermittently through my friend group, but we have not gone out on our own again. Despite what his dating language was telling me, the truth was most likely that Zach and I just were hungry at the same time. There shouldn’t be anything complicated about enjoying someone else’s company over a Big Mac.

I could have driven myself crazy overanalyzing whether or not to reciprocate Zach’s possible advances. It might be feel flattering (or even empowering) for women to hold onto this idea of chivalry, but I’ve found this unspoken gendered signing system leaves an endless gray area of interpretation. At its worst, it can lead to a perceived obligation to return the favor.

Maybe the real lesson here is that it’s about time men and women spoke more openly about how we feel. Let’s focus less on who pays for dinner and more on what we say to each other. Women are increasingly treated as financial equals to men, and this antiquated social code colors interactions with unnecessary anxiety and stringent gender roles. My encounter with Zach didn’t feel like a date, so it wasn’t one. Sometimes it really is just less of a pain for one person to pick up the check.

Hell, if you agree with me ladies, you might as well spot the check next time you’re out — no matter how you feel about the person across the table.

[Any reference to a specific company, commercial product, process, or service does not constitute or imply an endorsement or recommendation by the National Endowment for Financial Education.]