Two of our regular columnists debate a perennial controversy: should the man pay on the first date?
In the age of OK Cupid and PlentyofFish, first dates are as popular as ever, and so is the subject of first-date etiquette. Two of our regular columnists debate this controversy: should the man pay on the first date?
Last Monday, Emily Heist Moss—who is in her 20s and actively dating—wrote a piece called Splitting the Check: Yes, Please! in which she made the case for “going dutch.”
Hugo Schwyzer—a married dude in his mid-40s who admits he hasn’t been on a first date since the 20th century—takes a different approach, arguing that there are good reasons why men today should still pick up the first tab. Here is what they say:
Hugo: Emily, I loved your post about paying for dates. But I want to offer a different take and get your thoughts.
In my single days, I always offered to pay on the first date. It’s not because I’m old school or trying to impress. (Okay, maybe a little of the latter.) It certainly has nothing to do with trying to establish a quid pro quo.
I think men should offer to pay on the first date for another reason: the enduring economic disparity between men and women. As you know, women still make less than men for comparable work in this country. Obviously, that’s true in general terms only; it certainly doesn’t mean that on any given heterosexual date, the man always has more disposable income than the woman.
Emily: I agree with your premise, Hugo, but not your conclusions. It’s true women make less on average than men, but I don’t actually think we can apply that general rule to dating. Extrapolate that further, and you start to run into some sticky situations. For example, on average, white people make more money than black people. Would we expect the white partner in any interracial dating scenario to pay for the black person? That scenario, like the gender wage gap, is borne out of historic inequalities that persist today. As you pointed out, we don’t date in a vacuum, but we can’t let macro inequalities trickle into one-on-one interactions. If I did that, every time I talked to a man, I’d be weighed down with the sheer inequality of it all, and that’s no fun!
Hugo: But there’s another way in which this disparity has a real impact.
We have cultural expectations about dates. These expectations were around when I was single, when my parents were single, and from what I hear, they’re still around today. One obvious one is that you show up to a date looking nice. That doesn’t mean you pull out all the stops—you don’t want to intimidate or appear like you’re trying too hard. But you do want to “clean up good” for someone who might be “the one” (or at least “the one for a good long time.”)
Emily: Again, grant the premise, disagree on the conclusion! I don’t personally equate looking nice with expense. I don’t get haircuts more frequently if I’m going on dates, and I don’t buy new clothes. I “pay” in prep time, but we’re talking about a pretty small increment. Many women do put significantly more money into appearance than I do (and I admit, I’m one end of the spectrum). I think, however, that we all make choices about how we spend our money that are pressured and influenced by popular culture and expectations, men and women both.
Hugo: Generally speaking, the cost of “cleaning up good” is much higher for women. If we were to go into the bathrooms of men and women before the date and note the cost of all the product they use to get ready, it’s pretty likely that we’d find the woman spent considerably more. Both men and women are likely to shave in our culture, and both (one hopes) will wash their hair regularly. But when you throw in the cost of make-up and other grooming products, it would be a rare man who outspends the average woman. Metrosexuality is real, but its pervasiveness is oversold. Women still spend much more on looking good than do men.
Emily: Metrosexuality is not a great comparison for female beauty standards. Schmucky looking guys get well-groomed women all the time. That’s because typically, men and women (and I’m making a pretty broad generalization here) look for different things as indicators of success and desirability. Men might have put their money elsewhere in order to impress the ladies. They may have bought a car, for example, knowing that there is some contingent of women who favor men with wheels.
Hugo: Add in the reality that women pay more for haircuts and drycleaning (often substantially more), and there’s little doubt that the average young American woman has probably spent a lot more money getting ready than has her prospective beau. In that light, expecting him to pay for the date is less unreasonable than it first appears.
Emily: I think it’s fair to assume that we all are constantly trying to impress our desired partners, but we go about that in different ways. Having a higher income is and of itself a “burden” that men have to bear in order to make themselves more desirable to women. I’m not advocating that that’s right or fair (it isn’t), only that financial expectations are placed on both genders, they just manifest differently. Given that framework, I’d prefer that both of us approach a first date as individuals. I don’t expect him to pay because I don’t want him to think that his money is part of his appeal, and I don’t want him to treat me because he thinks that I can’t make as much as he can or because I spend my income on beauty maintenance.
Hugo: Thanks for these responses, Emily. Reading them, I don’t disagree with your take, though I still think the average woman’s cost of “looking good” exceeds any comparable costs for men. As you yourself say, “schmucky looking guys” get dates all the time—and for that matter, increasingly, so too do guys who don’t have cars and the other associated trappings of traditional masculine success.
Emily: That’s true. I do, however, also think that there’s a correlation between women who spend more on beauty maintenance and men with “trappings of traditional masculine success.” In other words, people who invest in the conventional things to “win” a mate are drawn to other people who also invest in those conventional things. I don’t spend a lot on my beauty routine, and I’m not looking for guys with fancy toys.
Hugo: Perhaps there’s a way we’re both right. Men should still offer to pay and be graceful about accepting a woman’s request to split the tab. When a man insists on picking up the check (because of chivalry or the reasons I’ve outlined above) over a woman’s request to share the cost, he’s showing a serious disregard for his date. I think we’d agree that’s a red flag. So, in this uncertain age where so many of us have one foot in tradition and one foot in modernity, this may be the best compromise.
Emily: Agreed. Men should offer on first dates. Not because I think they should pay, but because it’s the safer option. Offering and then agreeing to split won’t get you into trouble the way that expecting to go dutch might with a certain group of ladies.
Hugo: We’ve reached consensus!
I’ll finish with an anecdote. I was on a blind date many years ago. When the check came after an awkward lunch, we both reached for it. I used a standard line I’d had since college: “How ‘bout you let me get this one, and you can get next time?”
My date looked at me with a cool stare. “I don’t think there’ll be a next time,” she replied.
Ouch. I hadn’t been all that “in to” her either, but was both stung and impressed by her brutal candor. I paused, and said, “Well, may I pick it up to thank you for your time?” She gave me a Mona Lisa smile and a small nod of acquiescence. I paid the bill. and we never saw each other again.
Emily, last thoughts?
Emily: Nah, I think you’ve got it covered.