Black and white photo of a man and woman on a date
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Why do we still expect men to foot the bill on a first date?

Sali Hughes thought this presumption died out years ago. Tolerating a sexist, archaic ritual when it works to our advantage is not on, she says

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By Sali Hughes on

I was in Ireland on business last week and, as is shamefully typical, I spent much of my time not exploring an unfamiliar city, but sitting in my dressing gown, licking the salt off mini Pringles and watching the hotel telly – specifically, their version of First Dates. Its Irish incarnation is much the same as ours. Men making wildly inappropriate innuendo at the table? Tick. Some loveable nerds, women pretending to pee so they can call their mates, the fearful glances doorwards, the dropping of the baggage bomb – dead father, serious illness, recent car accident or Samurai sword collection? Tick, tick, tick, tick. Less welcome was the most mortifying first-date blunder of all: expecting a man to buy your dinner, then expressing displeasure when he assumes you’ll go Dutch.

Seriously. I thought the expectation that men always pay the bill on first dates died pre-Baywatch, but some women still support it. Lots, in fact – a third of 24- to 35-year-olds women and a quarter of us overall still think a man should pay the entire bill on a first date. Well, over half of us think he should offer. How can any self-respecting person bear to even tick these boxes on an anonymous survey, never mind have the brass neck to make an affronted face at the presumption of equality? A straw poll of the single men in my life confirms that dating, for them, is an expensive business and, unsurprisingly, they resent it.

Why would anyone but Mrs Beeton endorse such a terrifically unfair dynamic? It’s a question of manners, chivalry and tradition, apparently. But good manners means holding open a door, chewing with your mouth closed, being respectful and considerate. It’s not “good manners” for a man to feel obliged to pay more than his fair share – it’s bad manners for anyone to expect a free ride purely by virtue of being born with ovaries. It’s also a clear declaration from the very beginning of a relationship that its two participants are not equal in power or status. He is the provider, she should be provided for, regardless of whether she’s a hospital porter, headteacher or hedge-fund manager and he’s counting pennies from a jam jar. As for tradition, that also prohibited us from inheriting money, owning property and opening a bank account, but we’ve happily confined those to the distant past. The tradition of women not paying their way stems necessarily from women having no means to pay, and being awarded only pin money for essentials. Tolerating a sexist, anachronistic ritual only when it leaves you up on the deal is a bad look and lets us remaining three-quarters right down.

It’s not ‘good manners’ for a man to feel obliged to pay more than his fair share – it’s bad manners for anyone to expect a free ride purely by virtue of being born with ovaries

One doesn’t want to piss on the proverbial bonfire of anyone kind enough to want to pick up the tab, of course. There’s nothing wrong with accepting dinner from a willing and solvent man or woman (provided he’s not aggressively insistent and won’t accept “No, thanks” for an answer – if he is, then dinner is the least of your future worries), but it’s a fine line between accepting generosity and expecting it as though it’s your God-given right. You wouldn’t go to the pub with friends, order a drink, then duck out of your round, nor would you expect a total stranger to buy you a sandwich. So why expect a new man to buy your supper and your approval? If he suggests some wildly expensive restaurant you can’t possibly stretch to, then do as you would with mates: say you’d prefer somewhere cheaper and see if he’d rather subsidise than miss out.

Which certainly isn’t to say that paying for dinner is done only in reluctance. The joy in treating someone to a lovely evening can be equal to that experienced on the receiving end. But even if a man seemingly wants to pay and you’re happy for him to spring, it’s morally dubious to accept if you have absolutely no intention of ever seeing him again. It’s certainly not about owing him anything in return for a steak supper, but about wanting to at least imagine a time where you might be able to repay the favour by treating him back. This is surely the nature of all relationships, romantic and otherwise. When I treat a friend to lunch, it’s based on the tacit understanding that our friendship is ongoing, that we occasionally spoil one another, that our relationship is a comforting, perpetual transaction of give and take.

Besides, food is way too important to be conditional. To order extravagantly on someone else’s dollar is even ruder, but order modestly out of politeness and you’re cutting off your nose to spite your face. If I’m paying my way, I can order what I like and hang the consequences, whether that means ordering double measures and three extra sides, or guiltlessly shooing away his hand as it reaches towards my plate. Share the bill, never the chips.


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