Coffee date dilemmas

The topic of coffee dates has come up several times in the past few weeks. I’ve been asked about the etiquette of things like who pays, if you should wait to order until your colleague arrives, should you wait in the parking lot if you see the person getting out of their car, etc. So, I thought it would be helpful to write about coffee date etiquette.

When meeting for coffee, or a meal of any kind, it is the person who calls the meeting who pays for the coffee. If it’s a friend or a standing date and there is no clear host, then you can either take turns paying or pay separately.

Now, this leads to one of the questions I’m most often asked. What do I do if I get there early? Do I pay for my own drink or do I wait until the other person arrives? If you are the person who called the meeting and you arrive early, you should wait until your guest arrives so that you can order both drinks together.

Alternatively, you could order your drink when you get there and then order your guest’s drink when she arrives, but that’s a little more awkward. Usually your guest will protest or will end up buying her drink faster than you can get to the register to pay for it. But, I have done this at times with success.

One of my class participants mentioned that if she arrives early to a coffee date she initiated she will call the person she’s meeting with and ask what she can order for him. The drink is then waiting for the guest when he arrives. It’s best to get a sense of when the guest will show up, because if he is running late the drink could be cold upon arrival.

Let’s talk about what to do when you arrive before the host. It is presumptuous to wait for the host to arrive and pay for your drink, so go ahead and order your drink and let the host order her own when she arrives.

A colleague of mine mentions that when she arrives later than her guest and the guest has already ordered a drink, she will send a note thanking the guest for the meeting and will include a $5 Starbucks card saying she was sorry she couldn’t pay for the drink at their meeting. I think that’s lovely.

What about the dilemma of waiting or not waiting when you see your colleague getting out of his car in the parking lot. If you are close to your colleague’s car and he doesn’t seem focused on other things – talking on the phone, handling papers – then go ahead and wait. But, if your guest’s car is farther away in the parking lot or he seems preoccupied with other things, it’s fine to head into the coffee shop and wait for him there.

A few more things about meeting etiquette; if you need to leave at a specific time, be sure to let your colleague know at the start of the meeting so she understands why you are looking at your watch, and you can structure the meeting to fit within the timeframe.

It’s best not to order food, unless your colleague does, because it can be awkward eating alone. It’s also uncomfortable to talk when your mouth is full and the other person’s isn’t dealing with the same problem.

Lastly, I’ve said this many times, but it bears repeating since it’s something people continue to complain about. When you are meeting with someone do not answer your phone. The person in front of you gets priority and deserves your full attention. To avoid the temptation, turn your ringer off. If you’re expecting an urgent call, let your colleague know at the beginning of the meeting. If the call comes in, excuse yourself from the table and take it.

What are your coffee meeting etiquette dilemmas? Are there things you’ve encountered that I haven’t covered? Do you have coffee date pet peeves?


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Arden Clise is founder and president of Clise Etiquette. Her love for business etiquette began in previous jobs when she was frequently asked for etiquette, public speaking and business attire advice by executives and board members. The passion for etiquette took hold and compelled Arden to start a consulting business to help others. Read more >>


  1. Debbie Rosemont on September 6, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    This post is just what I needed Arden! I’ve wondered about a couple of the situations you present in your post and what the proper way to handle them is (often asking myself, “what would Arden do?”) and was thrilled to read it all layed out so sensibly. Thanks for addressing the issue!

  2. ArdenClise on September 6, 2012 at 6:23 pm

    Hi @Debbie Rosemont, I’m so glad it was helpful and I’m honored you think of me when pondering etiquette dilemmas. Sometimes I ask myself, what would Debbie do, when it comes to organizational dilemmas.
    Anyway, thank you for being the inspiration for the post with your questions about coffee dates.

  3. Tad Porter on June 12, 2016 at 9:15 pm

    I have a platonic friend, and I constently pay for coffee. I drink 2$ basic black coffee amd she orders 6$ frappaccinos every time. I think this is kind of rude. What do you think? Thank you, Tad.

  4. Arden Clise on June 14, 2016 at 6:47 pm

    Hi Tad. What I would suggest is that you take turns paying for the coffee. Simply say, “Would you mind picking up the tab today?” Or, if that feels uncomfortable just suggest that you each pay for your own drink. There is no reason for you to pay the bill every time if you get together on a regular basis and you are friends.

    I hope that helps.

  5. Joe shmo on October 1, 2017 at 11:07 am

    I’m getting someone today for coffee that I’ve previously met and gone to a free events with Nd I’m curious if I should take any precautions to prevent it from being awkward as it’s the first time were meeting alone. Advice?

  6. Joe shmo on October 1, 2017 at 11:08 am

    Excuse the auto correct nonsense

  7. Arden on October 2, 2017 at 9:57 am

    Hi Joe, I hope your date went well. Not knowing the nuances of your meeting I’m hoping the post was helpful. Basically, follow the tips above and be natural and interested in the other person and all should be fine.

  8. David on August 16, 2018 at 9:59 am

    I regularly go with my spouse to a coffee shop. Is it fair to the coffee house for one of us to order and not the other, even if we take turns, for the sake of saving money?

  9. Arden on August 16, 2018 at 9:37 pm

    Hi David, do you mean you only order one drink for the two of you and you split it or only one of you has a drink? If so, and if you’re on a tight budget I think that’s fine. Or, you could find another place to meet that doesn’t require a purchase such as the library.

  10. Maria on October 22, 2018 at 1:49 pm

    I had a coffee date, I invited the guy and he ordered and paid for his drink before I got there, about 30 seconds late, he must have been early. I just told him I was planning on paying and he waved me off about it and I paid for my own and didn’t think much of it. However my mother was shocked that he ordered so hastily, comparing it to ordering his food first at a restaurant. Becuase I was the initiator and was always expecting to pay it didn’t bother me; should it?

  11. Arden on October 24, 2018 at 2:34 pm

    Hi Maria, I don’t think it should bother you. It probably would have felt awkward waiting to order his drink until after you arrived. It could imply he was waiting for you to buy his beverage, which you had planned to do, but could look presumptuous if he expected it. I think it played out as it should.

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