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Response to "Hostess with the leastest"

Posted by Robin Abrahams  February 24, 2012 03:51 PM

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Monday's question, from an LW whose dinner-party host requested her to bring three dishes, caused quite a bit of debate. I think the hostess is somewhat lacking in the communication department, at the very least, but it wasn't the hostess who wrote in. Seeing as how I can only give advice to the person who asked for it, I think the LW needs to get over it. My attitude is similar to bklynmom, who wrote: 

... and maybe this letter annoys me too much, but I dont get the travesty of the guest returning home with dirty dishes. What's the difference between washing her platter at the friend's house that she's griping about vs washing them at her own? Takes same amount of time, so there's no loss or inconvenience that she suffered from. If she really didnt want to go thru the supposed aggravation of bringing appetizers and desserts for 8 people (3 of which were her own family); she could have simply said she wouldn't be able to do that and offer another option - wine, maybe food for half that; but to say yes and then choose to spend time cooking something, buying a gift and washing dishes - all voluntarily; then you shouldnt complain about things you CHOSE to do. She can be the perfect hostess for her own parties and if it bothers you so much that you think someone is breaking so many etiquette rules, dont go. 

There are two main reasons I find it hard to be entirely on the LW's side. First, this line: "Frankly, I am confused by this behavior - this is not what my mom taught me to do when entertaining and this is not how I entertain my friends in return." No, LW, you are not confused. You are disapproving, and it's disingenuous and passive-aggressive to be all "what are these strange new customs?" about it. 

The second is that the LW "happily" volunteered to bring food, and then didn't decide until afterward that maybe this was all a terrible imposition. Look, if the question is "Should I make myself miserable over X?" I will always answer "no." And you don't get to volunteer for things and then feel all taken-advantage-of. That said, the friend was a little sneaky in how she proffered the invite, and I liked TempestInATeapot's advice: 

I think what bothers me about this is the "bait-and-switch" aspect. I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with an invite to get together for dinner and split the courses. However, "come over" and then "oh, bring half the menu" seems sneaky and rude. If it happens with the same host again, the guest is welcome to respond (after the food request) that "oh, I'm so sorry - I didn't realize that's what you had in mind. I'm booked all day beforehand and wouldn't have time to prepare or shop for anything. We'll have to look for some other time!" Then either continue to defer and/or host the way you want to - knowing they might never reciprocate in kind. Perhaps they grew up with a different model for entertaining - it's not right or wrong, but it's not what you expect. 

I agree. Go along with people's plans, or don't. And TiaT is right that even after the host has sprung, "And you'll bring a whole roast pig, right? We've got the apple to put in its mouth, don't worry about that," you can change your RSVP. Saying you are free implies you're free to eat dinner that night, not cook it. 

AntoniaB wrote: 

Yes, technically a host does not ask people to bring things to a dinner/party and leaves cleaning up until later. Obviously this does not always happen. I think, though, there are several things to consider. I enjoy cooking, I love having friends round. Some of my friends reciprocate by having us over for dinner. Some of my friends don't cook or entertain and reciprocate by taking us out to dinner. One friend, bless him, always appears with something that was in his fridge as a hostess gift - it's rather random but always lovely, gourmet even if I'm scratching my head. Some of my friends don't reciprocate the hospitality at all. If they didn't give and contribute to the friendship in other ways then I would feel slighted, but I think here the thing is to see if you feel there is balance in the relationship - if everyone is giving in some way that plays to their strengths and things are humming along. You sound as if that's not the case, so perhaps a review of why you're friends with these people is in order. 

I think this is incredibly important. I often wonder how many of the letters I get asking me if So-and-So is displaying bad etiquette in a particular situation are really about an overarching lack of equity in the relationship. Some people are in a position to entertain, others don't have the space or skill or money. Some friends listen to your romantic woes, or proof your resume, or water your plants while you're gone, or take you to chemo. Some people are really good at buying presents and remembering birthdays. Some people will always donate to your Kickstarter or Walk For or Against Something Urgent. Love your friends for what they can give, in other words. Unless your friends are like ash's

... perhaps this hostess is a bit like my old friend "J" who never met a friend she couldn't take advantage of. "J" was famous for inviting people to dinner, then asking them to bring the main course for 20. She didn't just ask them to bring soda--easy enough, couple of bottles, package of cups--there were specific instructions--had to be cans, an assortment of cans, a lot of cans, then J kept the extras. 

... or AmazonPlanet's

I had friends like that who would call and say; "So, any plans this weekend?" and I'd reply; "no, what did you have in mind?" and then...wait for it...wait for it.."want to help me"... move or babysit or paint or some other not so small favor. By doing this the trap is set because you already said you are available and they are putting you on the spot. I find this to be sneaky & manipulative; not good traits to possess. 

Learning to tell the difference between the true advantage-takers and the kind-but-clueless is a lifetime process! (Not sure which one your friend is? Write to Miss Conduct and ask!)
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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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