Miss Conduct

Dinner plate tectonics

Addressing eruptions over overeager busboys, plus mooching in-laws.

By Robin Abrahams
June 28, 2009
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I was recently at a restaurant with eight people. When half of us had finished eating, the waiter and busboy began clearing away the dirty plates. One person became upset and stated this was “unacceptable,” even demanding to see the manager. I was the only person at the table who didn’t seem bothered -- I appreciate sitting for a bit after a meal and don’t want dishes or food in front of me. Must a server wait until everyone has finished his or her meal before clearing the plates (or asking to)? E.M. / Duxbury All diners’ plates should be cleared together, whether at home or at a restaurant. The idea is that doing it this way avoids bringing attention to those folks who eat slower, or faster, or less, or more than everyone else at the table. That said, and as a person who eats about as much about as briskly as anyone else, I’m with you. I don’t like dirty dishes and food scraps in front of me, either, so I never say anything when a server swoops my plate away while my dining companions are still eating. If I did want to say something, a simple and pleasant “Can you please leave these until everyone is finished?” would suffice. Losing one’s composure and creating a scene as your friend did is a ridiculous overreaction likely to leave an unpleasant emotional residue over the evening that can’t be blithely scraped away like so many stray focaccia crumbs.

My fiance has a large family, and we all get together for dinner once a month or so. When the restaurant bill comes, his mother and sister always play cute and dodge the bill, expecting us and whoever else is present to pay, which we simply can’t afford. My fiance agrees this is unfair but feels obligated to indulge his mother, and I feel it isn’t yet my place to speak up. How do we nip this in the bud diplomatically? Or am I being a jerk? We have already pushed for more home gatherings and cheaper restaurants, but they are still mooching. P.S. / Cambridge You’re not being a jerk; your future mother- and sister-in-law (as you suspect) are. You’re not obligated to break your own budget buying your in-laws dinner. Some basic rules of conduct need to be set, and set now. If you plan on having kids, you’ll need to have established some boundaries with Grandma. (And if you don’t, you’ll need even stronger boundaries to keep her from nagging you relentlessly for grandkids.) This means that you don’t “push for” anything; you cheerfully and implacably tell Mesdames Moochers how things are going to be. Those who pay the bills make the rules. Didn’t you know that? The next time family dinner rolls around, explain that it’s a potluck at your place or the Sunday buffet at Chang’s Cheap & Cheerful Chinese. Repeat “Sorry, cutting back” as often as necessary until the phrase has lost all meaning and become a random string of syllables in your mind. The spongers will get on board sooner or later.

This is how things could work if you and your fiance were on the same page, but you aren’t. And your mother-in-law’s behavior has obviously been accepted not just by your fiance, but by the other members of the family as well. You say your fiance is unhappy with the situation but feels he can’t say anything. That’s your real problem: not an overbearing mother-in-law, but a son who can’t say no to her. I think the two of you ought to have some serious conversations about filial obligation and how you should handle it as a couple if and when the needs of your parents conflict with those of your own family.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology. Her new book is Miss Conduct’s Mind Over Manners.

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