Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Splitting a bill on the basis of income disparities won’t solve sticky cultural problems—but it might remind people that they haven’t gone away.
Settling on how to split a restaurant bill is a sticky situation for groups of diners. Should you itemize it? Should you split it down the middle? Should you just stay home forever and absolve yourself of these awkward discussions? A torrent of contradictory advice gives etiquette experts conniptions.
A new app, set to launch for iOS this month, claims to offer a new solution to this interminable debate—but really, in this case, the bill isn’t the point at all.
EquiTable uses the headache-inducing occasion of splitting a check as a way to broach discussions about inequality on the basis of gender and race. It draws upon data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to apportion responsibility commensurate with guests’ average earning potential. So, a white guy out to dinner with a black woman would fork over more money to cover the check, as a product of the enduring wage gap.
The app doesn’t account for how much the people at the table are making in their respective jobs—instead, it weighs the burdens of their demographic groups as a whole. “You can’t detract our current social and political systems from how labor markets have treated groups of people historically,” says Graham Starr, a writer who worked on the app. (Full disclosure: he’s now a fellow at The Atlantic, though we haven’t met.)
The app is tongue-in-cheek, for sure—white diners can contest their privilege by claiming exemptions on the basis of ugliness or the indignity of growing up as a middle child. It’s deliberately funny, and, in fact, was conceived at Comedy Hack Day, which describes itself as an incubator for “hilarious tech.” EquiTable is the brainchild of Luna Malbroux, who works as an anti-bias educator in San Francisco, and was brought to life by a team of seven comedians, designers, and programmers.
But the team is quick to point out that its satirical bent doesn’t prevent the app from tackling a real issue—in fact, the cheekiness is a deliberate tactic to make an often-uncomfortable topic a little more palatable. “I thought a bill-splitting app would be a fun way to show how inequality plays into people’s lives economically,” Malbroux explains. The goal is to use everyday interactions as an entry point for tackling big-issue discussions. “We’re not making fun of the problem—we’re worried that people aren’t seeing the problem,” says Starr. The app is usable—that is to say, it does function as a bill-splitter—but it’s more potent as a thought experiment.
Of course, the app won’t shrink the wage gap. But it might remind people that it exists. That’s because comedy and satire can disarm taboo topics, and, in the process, cultivate empathy and awareness, Starr explains. “It’s silly, it’s funny, but it’s still real.”