“Don’t even bother,” my big-shot executive pal warned me as I reached for my college-era Visa. We hadn’t seen each other since my undergrad days. “You never pay for the meal of someone who’s better off than you.”
“That’s crazy,” I said.
“Who’s the millionaire between us?” he shot back, like God dressing down Job. “Who’s the one who’s been to more business dinners than you’ll ever dream of? Who’s the one who has the black American Express card? Do not pay for this meal.”
“When I started out,” he explained, “I was invited by the founder of our company for drinks and steak. And I tried to pay for our dinner, which ended up about $200 — and this was in the ’70s, when $200 meant something. He yanked my wallet from me and said, ‘John, I invited you to dinner; that means you’re my guest. And if you’re my guest, that means I’m supposed to take care of you. And if I’m going to take care of you, that means I’ve got your bill.’”
He continued. “And my boss said, ‘What kind of boss would I be — what kind of man would I be — if I made my worker or guest, who I know makes far less money than me, pay for the meal? That’s just a pathetic move that shows I have no empathy. That’s not a good philosophy to live by. So I pay. The good person always offers to pay; and the wealthier of the two always does.’”
“Can we at least go Dutch?” I responded to the executive.
“You’re not listening!” he said. “After that, whenever I went out with people more successful than me, I always judged them by the words of my boss. The people I wanted to do business with or start a friendship with were those who offered to pick up the bill; the shady characters were those who just sat back and waited for someone to pay. And when I started picking up the tab for my friends and on business meals as I became wealthier, everyone’s view of me changed. They knew me now as someone who would take care of business,” whether that meant the meal in front of them or things of more substance.
“How about if I pay this time, and you pay next time?” I said.
“But you don’t pay the bill to build a reputation,” he replied, ignoring my offer. “You pay because it’s the right thing to do. You really don’t know the financial situation of the other person whenever you go out, so just offer; if the person is wealthier than you, he’ll take care of you, no worries. You always take care of those worse off than you — call it Jesus or charity or good business or whatever, but you always do. Now, let me pay the bill.”
He won. Best business lunch I ever had (high-end chilaquiles, by the way). The lesson I learned that day is a mantra I’ve followed ever since and have repeated to everyone I know, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because of what my exec pal told me as we left the restaurant:
“Besides, every single meal I have gets reimbursed. So not only does the other person get a free meal, so do I. Isn’t picking up the tab awesome?”