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Relationships Am I obligated to foot the bill for a colleague who invited me to a networking event?

The question

My colleague invited me to dinner with partners. Normally I wouldn’t have attended this event but my colleague thought it would be good to include me for networking purposes. Prior to the dinner starting, we had some drinks in the lounge not covered by our company. The server brought over the bills and my colleague (the one who invited me) asked if I could cover hers as she needed to quickly go to the table to greet the guests. I did not think twice and asked for our bills to be merged. When it arrived, I noticed she had purchased two very expensive glasses of wine. I was on the hook for an additional $35! I saw her later in the evening and she thanked me for covering her bill and said she owes me a drink. With any close friend I would have taken them up on this, but I never go out with this colleague, and it is unlikely I will have a chance. This seems like a hollow gesture. My partner suggested that I just need to eat this cost and move on. Should I let it go? Or should I say something?

The answer

Let me say first of all that I feel your pain on a profound, almost cellular level.

I am only one generation removed from farm folk, for whom thrift was not only a virtue but a key to survival.

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And then as a young man I was a struggling writer: also painful, financially.

I know what it is to live on a dollar a day.

(The secret for me was ramen noodles. In my neighbourhood they were four packages for a dollar. So: one for breakfast, one for lunch, two for dinner. You’d try to mix up the flavours: pork, beef, chicken, shrimp and “Oriental.” Truth is, they all tasted pretty much the same, and sure, you’d get sick of them, but the good news was: You’re still alive!)

So yes, a $17 glass of wine is like a knife in my heart! I find it hard to pay that for a bottle let alone a glass – to the point where I feel like I can’t go to a restaurant any more.

Pay $35 for a chicken piccata? Chicken dredged in flour, fried, flipped, and you squirted a little lemon on it? And here’s your $17 glass of wine? Forget it, I can do it at home with great ease and a fraction of the price.

Anyway, enough ranting. Obviously, one must leave one’s domicile and dine out once in a while, especially if there’s a question, as in your case, of “networking.”

And precisely because of the networking aspect of it all, I would say not to squawk about it and to use your partner’s terminology: just “eat the cost and move on.”

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I have a rather brilliant friend who works in the corporate world and I consulted him about it all, and he muttered various dark-overlord type comments about what you should do, employing numerous tortured metaphors such as:

“Put her in a financial gulag.”

“Be like a duck on the water, placid on the surface while your webbed feet work under the surface to solidify a narrative of her financial chicanery.”

And “quietly bide your time until you have the opportunity to restiff the person who stiffed you.”

Brilliant as he is, ultimately, after a certain amount of reflection, I don’t believe I agree.

In fact, I’d go the other way. Next time (obviously depending on your financial situation) pick up the whole tab!

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There is nothing more powerful in this world that creates more goodwill than picking up the tab. I remember once I was at a dinner with about a dozen people at a fancy restaurant, going through my usual torments (“Oh my God this is going to be pricey, what a ripoff,” etc.) when the woman who invited us there threw down her credit card and said, “It’s on me.”

I didn’t even like her that much beforehand. I might even have talked some trash about her. Afterward? If someone had said anything against her I would have taken a swing at that person.

An even higher form of picking up the tab is announcing in advance that’s what you’re going to do. Then everyone can relax during the meal.

If you can afford it, try it. That’s “networking,” baby, and I bet it pays off in spades in the long run.

Are you in a sticky situation? Send your dilemmas to damage@globeandmail.com. Please keep your submissions to 150 words and include a daytime contact number so we can follow up with any queries.

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