This is a column about etiquette. But I don't mean etiquette in the must-wear-a-jacket or elbows-off-the-table-at-all-times sense.
I don't really mind how you dress when you go out to dinner. If you want to sit on the table, never mind rest your elbows on it – knock yourself out. No, the etiquette I am thinking of is of the most basic, easy-to-understand form: paying.
Last week, I was eating dinner with six friends in a Vietnamese restaurant. We were drinking beer, chatting and slurping our way through Pho noodle soups. The beer was doing its work and the stock the noodles and beef were prepared in had clearly been simmering on the cooker all day, so gluggable was it – all was well in this table-sized bit of London.
Some people ordered some more, some people didn't and then, happily broth and booze-filled, we ordered the bill and got ready to pay. This should be the easy bit. The pre-cursor to the walk to the train: the bit that involves zero choice.
But one of our number, let us call him James, for that is his name, decided that the bill must be split not between the six of us, but to the penny by what we had eaten. So he figured out what he and his girlfriend had chewed through, threw down the cash and left, as we split the rest. Now, you might say, what is wrong with that? James seems a bit finicky, but he is paying his way, is he not?
Well, the thing is, he wasn't. He had gone to the trouble to put the calculator to use on his phone, punched in all the numbers, counted out the cash but forgot to add the service. And so either we paid it, which we did, or the staff went without it.
Which is why I would like to unreservedly brand all bill breaker-downers as skinflints. Because, although they would deny it until the cows come home, the people who demand a bill be scalpelled are not actually trying to pay no more than they are due, they are usually trying to pay less.
Now, there are exceptions to this. If you are not drinking and everyone else is guzzling booze at a rate of knots, fair enough, split yourself off the cheque (as long as you remember your 12.5 per cent). But otherwise, bite the bullet. Surely the rules of hospitality – and friendship – are such that in some instances you pay more for your pals, knowing that at some point, end of friendship notwithstanding, they will end up doing the same for you.
It is a delicate little ecosystem, bill paying – and one all too easily wrecked by the man in the corner with a calculator.