DEAR MISS MANNERS: In my close circle of friends and family, I am the individual with the highest income. I have no issue paying when a small group of us go out to dinner. My friends do not take advantage of my generosity.
But now I’ve had an awkward dining experience: The person I went to dinner with offered to pay, I accepted, and it became clear afterward that they had not expected me to accept.
How can I graciously accept someone else’s offer to pay, while still allowing those who feel a need to make the hollow gesture? My preference would be for them not to make the gesture at all if they were not actually comfortable paying, but I can only control my actions.
I do not want to always insist on paying, but I also do not want my less financially fortunate friends to pay for my meal if they do not want to. Thanking them for offering and then telling them it is unnecessary feels a little condescending, but is that the proper way to handle this? I am honestly at a loss.
GENTLE READER: Etiquette does not, contrary to popular belief, sanction hollow gestures. Wishing someone a good day may not be as hefty as working for world peace, and blessing someone who sneezes may not have liturgical significance. But both should be meant, if not deeply felt.
Offering to pay for the meal means something, and not because it involves money, but because it is a way of showing hospitality. If your friend did not intend to do that, then he should have kept silent. Certainly he should not expect you to have inferred his insincere intent. If he wants to reciprocate your generosity, he can do so at less cost, perhaps by inviting you to some other activity.
If you do not want to burden him with this expense, then offer to pay for it, to split the cost or to go to a less expensive establishment. But don’t give him credit for something he was not prepared to do, or feel bad for taking him at his word.