Negotiation Skills Company, Inc.
Negotiation Skills Company, Inc.

Title Image
The Negotiation Journal October 1997
An Excerpt By Steven P. Cohen

What Would You Do about the Bill for Dinner?
Robert B. McKersie

Book Cover Several readers had thoughtful, culturally sensitive responses to the difficulty faced by a man attempting to entertain four couples whose hospitality he had enjoyed in the past, only to find himself embroiled in an embarrassing social situation. The problem was complicated not just by differing cultural expectations on the parts of host and guests, but also by the fact that the guests themselves held different expectations. The scenario, in brief, was:

A young American invited to dinner four couples--two American and two Japanese--who had previously had him to dinner at their homes. Because he was a poor cook, he decided to entertain at a restaurant instead of at his house. He made it clear that the invitation was to compensate for his inadequate cooking skills, but he did not explicitly mention his intention to pay for the restaurant meal, which he felt was implied by the invitation itself.

When the waiter presented him with the bill, all the friends asked the amount of their shares. After a few rounds of insistence by both sides, the American friends conceded and thanked the young man for the meal.

The Japanese friends, however, did not stop. They tried to press money upon their host, acted as if they did not understand, and protested that their wives would disapprove of them if they did not succeed in paying.

The young man felt he could not accept their money, because it would embarrass the American friends who had let him pay. The Japanese friends were insistent, and began to talk together in Japanese, a rarity in front of nonspeakers. The young man was very distressed, because the objective of the dinner was to thank his friends, not upset them.

What would you have done to extricate all parties from this discomfiting situation?

Inadequate Prep Work Creates Further Obligations

by Steven P. Cohen

The dilemma faced by the American hosting the two American and two Japanese couples for dinner starts off as proof of the critical necessity of preparation. In this instance, the host ought to have prepared in two ways: he should have learned more about the cultural dos and taboos of his guests and, even more important, he should have done a proper job of setting the agenda in advance, reaching a clear understanding about who would be paying for dinner.

However, we can't use the luxury of 20/20 hindsight when we're in the midst of a fight over the bill at the restaurant. Americans may be blessed with an "impediment in their reach" in such circumstances, but we cannot assume everyone is the same.

One element missing from this scenario is the locus of the event. Has the dinner taken place in the U.S., Japan, or some third country where all the parties are outsiders?

If the dinner is in Japan, the host's faux pas is causing his Japanese guests to risk losing face on their home turf. In this case, rather than simply paying off his pre-existing obligation, the host is creating yet another obligation vis-a-vis his Japanese guests. The American guests may understand; the host's obligation to them may now be cleared. But it sounds as if an expedition to an even fancier restaurant may be in order for the host and the Japanese couples--and this time, with a clear understanding about the host's and guests' agendas.

In the States, the host might explain to his Japanese guests that he is most embarrassed not to have been clearer in his description of local customs regarding reciprocity. Here he might look to his American guests as a semi-disinterested outside resource on U.S. customs. Perhaps the Japanese guests can be encouraged to look at the situation as an opportunity for cross-cultural education.

One answer, particularly among peers as in this case, is the use of honesty and apology. "I do not mean to offend you and am embarrassed that my ignorance may cause you consternation. Would you please accept my apology and allow me to pick up the check now that I have explained my original failure to communicate the purpose of this dinner invitation?"

There is another possible approach. The host might say, "I understand and appreciate your very kind offer to pay for your share of the dinner. However, my invitation to dinner was intended to repay/reciprocate my obligation to you. If I cannot fulfill that obligation by paying for this meal, I will lose face not only in terms of my own self-image, but also in front of my American guests. Would you do me the honor of allowing me to pay this time?"

No matter what he does, the host has incurred a further obligation to his Japanese guests that should be settled at some future time. The resolution that is reached in this instance will determine the magnitude of that ongoing obligation.

Steven P. Cohen is President of The Negotiation Skills Company. He has taught negotiation at INSEAD and is on the adjunct faculty of management schools in the United States and Europe. He can be reached at P.O. Box 172, Pride's Crossing, MA 01965 or through the worldwide web at:

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