science of us

Do You Freak Out When Your Friend Picks Up the Check?

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Few normal social situations give me as much quiet anxiety as paying a restaurant bill with friends. In the past few years, it seems, an unspoken but universal agreement has been made between everyone I hang out with that we’re past the age of carefully tabulating down to the penny what each person owes; we’ve moved on to just splitting evenly and assuming it will all balance out over time, or even worse, alternating who picks up the whole thing.

I understand that things are easier this way and that I should chill, and also that we’re all very lucky to be financially secure enough to do this, but oh, boy, do I dread that squirmy feeling that comes every time someone cheerfully says “I’ve got it this time!” as they hand a server their credit card. Because I know what’s coming: Next time this person and I make plans, I’m going to worry — leading up to, during, and after our time together — about whether the place we’re going to is at a roughly similar level of priciness as the last one, or whether I’ve undershot and now seem cheap when it’s my turn to pay.

The bright spot in all this is that it’s always a relief when you realize your own personal neuroses aren’t actually that unique. And a study recently published in the Journal of Economic Psychology did one better, putting a name to a phenomenon that apparently plenty of people experience: “reciprocity anxiety,” which the authors defined as “feel[ing] anxious in a situation that requires them to reciprocate or when they anticipate such a situation.”

Granted, this study specifically looked at reciprocity anxiety within the context of consumerism: in addition to rating their agreement with more general statements like “I’m restless and on edge when I owe someone,” participants were also asked to imagine how they’d react to a couple different scenarios in which they received special discounts and other perks from a shop or restaurant. But still — owing is owing. Whether you feel beholden as a customer or as a friend, the awkwardness you create for yourself is the same, in nature if not in degree. Even the closest of friendships can’t erase the fact that some interactions will always feel at least a little transactional, because you’re two separate humans with distinct desires and bank accounts. It’s an unpleasant reality of friendship maintenance.

And the idea that this particular discomfort has a name — that reciprocity anxiety may even be a personality trait, as the study authors argue — is soothing. There’s a certain loneliness to worrying about your individual worries: that they’re unfounded, that you’re alone in having them, that you’re creating opportunities for angst where none exist. Here’s a little bit of an antidote, or at the very least, a reminder that when the check arrives at a group dinner, you’re probably not the only one at the table who’s cringing internally. It’s nice to have company.

Do You Freak Out When Your Friend Picks Up the Check?