Multi-cultural dining dynamics

Call me curious or over analytical, I have always found the dynamics of settling restaurant bills very interesting. When I was in school, I usually went out every year with my gang of girls and we always ordered a set menu (Veg Thali at Gokul Veg) and split the bill equally. Rs. 54 each. Fair and square. Given the simplicity and consistency in  the way we settled accounts, my curiosity was never kindled until college, when I dined with friends who ate non-vegetarian food (its more expensive than veg food for the uninitiated) and consumed alcohol. Usually, there was only one odd vegetarian that didn’t consume alcohol (my pocket money barely covered petrol for my bike and most of the time, I didn’t see value in spending my parents hard earned money on substances they didn’t approve of). This stark disparity made it easy for splitting the bill appropriately, sparing the odd sasyahari from sponsoring drinks for the rest. Most of the time, there was a self selection among groups – members consumed comparable levels of alcohol and most non vegetarians were chickenatarians who didn’t mind sponsoring the occasional prawn eater. In times of unfair split, it was perfectly acceptable to indicate the aberration in the settlement since everyone was well acquainted with a student’s state of penury given similar economic backgrounds. After 4 years of suffering from what I call the menu card syndrome (reading the menu from right to left – prices to dish), we graduated to more sophisticated methods of ordering where settling accounts was just incidental and insignificant. When you’re a student again, there is a relapse of the menu card syndrome, except there is a slight difference when you’re an MBA student in an international business school –  the culture and economic differences are too high to highlight in insufficiencies in settling restaurant bills without having your reputation damaged. You see, dining together is a form of networking with future professional repercussions. In turn, half the diners/ drinkers do far lesser justice to their share of the bill compared to the other half. Of course, this is a function of who picks up the bill and offers to lead the settlement (the poor eater/ non-drinker seldom dons this opportunity). Recently, I have been observing a pattern, people from some cultures need far higher quantities of alcohol to accompany their meals and obviously, don’t notice the disparity simply because it is culturally ingrained as normal. Some people are heavy red meat eaters (far more expensive than white meat – chicken) and don’t see the repercussions of disparity in ordering again due to cultural upbringing. Given the differences in consumption, is there any way to game the dynamics? There are three ways to do this. One, follow Prisoner’s dilemma and take the high way when you are in a group of greater than 3 members – don’t constrain yourself while ordering, go ahead and order the most expensive item on the menu so you can do more justice to your share of the bill. Two, pick up the bill as soon as it arrives and suggest that you split according to individual consumption but remember you will end up paying a far higher premium for appearing to be cheap (no one views this as fair except the odd vegetarian, and that too in his/ her mind only). Three, identify people who follow the first strategy and stop going out with them. This way, you can teach them a lesson, without overeating or consuming alcohol when you don’t want to by driving down their subsidies from larger number of people to share the bill. Before I could gloat over my observations, I found this – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons. Nevertheless, I was pleased to see that my observations were institutionalised  by this economics concept thus making it easy to spot a practitioner in any given group. Hence, none of the above strategies are sustainable if you dine repetitively with the same group as the aberration evens out due to this phenomenon since all members of the group will eventually realise strategies of the individual players and adopt accordingly. On this note, I declare my profuse love for microeconomics and recommend you to give this a shot (since IESE hasn’t had a course in Microeconomics 😦 ) – https://www.coursera.org/course/microecon!!

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