The Localist

Who foots the bill?


“No! You are a guest!” my friend almost shouted. Then, turning to the cashier, he said, “don’t take the money please, he is a guest!” I put the thousand rupee note back into my wallet. Stuffing the wallet into my hip-pocket, I helplessly mumbled, “It’s been a week and still I am a guest?” My friend simply smiled and said, “You owe us a big treat when you get your first salary”.

A couple of weeks ago I started a new job here in Islamabad. A friend of mine was already working here. We both went to a cafeteria for lunch together. Paying for food is very interesting here, and the rules are generally quite simple. If you are together with friends, paying individually for your food is a cultural taboo, impossible and out of question. Normally, the one who is most senior in age, or has a higher salary, or has not paid previously, is supposed to pay. Also, if someone is somehow defined as a guest, the self-proclaimed host will make sure that the guest does not pay for their food. Now, in our case, as I had moved from Lahore to Islamabad for the job, I was therefore defined as a ‘guest’, and my friend, the ‘host’, played all sorts of tricks to prevent me from paying for food on most days during my first week here.

Since I came to Islamabad and started my new job, another new colleague has joined my office who is also from outside the city. I have started to accompany him at lunchtime, and find myself repeating the same words that I was told in my first week here. The cashier at the cafeteria never accepts money from this new colleague of mine after I hint to him that the man is new here and still, therefore, a guest.

Sometimes the guest-host role-playing becomes tricky. In the early days of my career, I visited an organization for some sort of audit. The head of the organization insisted that I have lunch at his home. It seemed a bit awkward and beyond the ethical norms of my role as auditor to accept the invitation to have lunch at the home of the auditee. Since I had travelled from outside the city, however, it was also almost impossible to decline the invitation, as letting the ‘guest’ have his meal on his own would be deemed an offensive act by the ‘self-proclaimed host’. So, in order to avoid an awkward situation, I decided to take the golden path. After having lunch at the house of my host, I spent some time playing with his young kid. As I was departing, I gave the kid some money as a gift. As the host objected to this, I said, “this is between the uncle and the nephew. Since I am his uncle, you can have no objection to what I give to my nephew”. This gesture easily settled the account.

Another rule about paying that I almost forgot is that if there are females among males, the males will consider it unchivalrous to let the women pay. One of my friends from abroad told me that once he was visiting Islamabad to attend a seminar for a few days. Most other delegates were female, while this friend of mine was a male. Every time they went together to the restaurants around the city (restaurants in Islamabad are known for their broad variety of national and international cuisines), the waiter approached my friend to foot the bill. Unfortunately, he didn’t bring much money with him, and after having paid the whole bill a few times already, it became increasingly embarrassing for him when he soon couldn’t afford to pay. The ladies realized the situation and tried to cue the waiters so that they wouldn’t bring the bill to the man, but all their efforts were in vain. The waiters seemed madly obsessed with this idea of chivalry, and insisted that the man pay the bill for the ladies. My friend was almost bankrupt at the end of the seminar, and wished that he was a woman and could stay in Pakistan forever.


Image. “7-Star Fast Food” @ Near Data Darbar Shrine @ Lahore by Guilhem Vellut, CC license Attribution 2.0 Generic.

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