Who Pays For a First Date? And Why It Matters

You are out on a first date with a prospective paramour.  Over dinner, you enjoyed engaging conversation, and great chemistry.  But here comes the bill.  30 years ago, your server would probably have placed it squarely down in front of the man.  Today, it is placed in the middle of the table, creating the first awkward moment of the evening. What happens now?

The arrival of the check can spark a showdown if the man grabs it and the woman insists on paying half, or a staredown if he does´t.  Why is this important?  Because research indicates that the party who pays for a first date shapes the expectations of what is going to happen next. 

True, expectations are also shaped by other factors, such as the price tag and choice of venue.  A man who springs for an expensive meal and a bottle of wine served at a candlelit table in a swanky restaurant might have different expectations than a man who is able to score two barstools on the fly in a crowded sports bar.

Yet across the board, unless a couple goes Dutch, both men and women consider who pays for a date–although they interpret this fact very differently.

Research by Marisa Cohen (2016) reveals that women believe that men who pay for a date are more likely to be attracted to them.[i]  Yet men view payment in a very different light.

First Date Scripts: Footing the Bill as a Foot In The Door

Research by Emmers-Sommer et al. (2010) acknowledged that abundant research indicates that heterosexual dating scripts remain quite traditional, with the man expected to ask the woman out, and to pay for the date.[ii] They further noted that their study revealed that although modern singles believe it is appropriate for either party to initiate a first date, in reality, most men do so, rather than women.

They found similar results regarding who should pay for a first date.  While both men and women expressed their belief in the appropriateness for either party to grab the bill, they also reported they believed the man should always pay for a first date.

Emmers-Sommer et al. also found that men have higher first date sexual expectations than women. They found this is particularly true where the man pays for the date, and where the date takes place at an apartment, versus in public, either at a restaurant or the movies.  

They discovered even more potentially dangerous findings when the woman was the instigator.  They found that when the woman invited the man on the date, paid for the date, and had the date at her apartment, men had higher rape myth acceptance beliefs as compared to dates where the man initiated and paid for the date, or where either partner initiated the date and they went Dutch.  

Modern Trends Regarding First Date Funding

Taking these findings in context, there are many first date bill-splitting/ paying scenarios that will not necessarily trigger false expectations—which some would argue might be for the best.  Khadeeja Safdar, in a 2017 piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Who Pays on the First Date? No One Knows Anymore— Online Dating, Evolving Gender Roles Complicate the Fake Wallet Reach,” observes that in an age of evolving gender roles and Internet dating, we are unsure about who should engage in “the reach” (for the bill).[iii]

Safdar describes several modern end-of-the-meal scenarios ranging from both parties engaging in a “gunfighter’s staredown” once the bill arrives, to disregarding the advice of etiquette experts that “if you invite, you pay” because one of the parties does not realize they are on a date.  Safdar even shared the experience of a woman who agreed to a date with a man she met on Tinder, only to receive a $20 invoice via the mobile-payment app Venmo after she arrived home, for her portion of the meal.  She didn´t pay the bill.  I am guessing they did not have a second date.

When Great Expectations Are False Expectations

False expectations of a woman´s sexual responsiveness on a first date based on who pays the bill and where the date occurs has intense practical significance in a day and age where sexual miscommunication leads to awkward situations, compromised friendships, or worse.  From campus sexual assault to situational acquaintance rape, many first dates with mismatched expectations end in disaster, both emotionally and physically. 

First daters are on unfamiliar territory when it comes to reading a dinner partner’s expressed level of romantic interest because at that early stage in a relationship, they are still basically strangers.  Consequently, perceptions are often incorrect.  Both parties should move slowly on a first date in order to ensure clear communication, avoid false expectations, and promote healthy relational choices. 

About the author:

Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert.  She is the author of author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House). 

She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention, safe cyber security, and threat assessment, and is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own. 

Find her at wendypatrickphd.com or @WendyPatrickPhD

References

[i] Marisa T. Cohen,  “It’s not you, it’s me…no, actually it’s you: Perceptions of what makes a first date successful or not,” Sexuality & Culture: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 20, no. 1 (2016): 173-191. 

[ii] Tara M. Emmers-Sommer, Jenny Farrell, Ashlyn Gentry, Shannon Stevens, Justin Eckstein, Joseph Battocletti, and Carly Gardener, “First Date Sexual Expectations: The Effects of Who Asked, Who Paid, Date Location, and Gender,” Communication Studies 61, no. 3 (2010): 339-355.

[iii] Khadeeja Safdar,”Who Pays on the First Date? No One Knows Anymore — Online Dating, Evolving Gender Roles Complicate the Fake Wallet Reach,” Wall Street Journal, Eastern Edition (June 27, 2017): A.1.

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