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Social Grace 

Potluck Protocol

Wednesday, Dec 20 2000
Dear Social Grace,
I recently hosted a small potluck with friends from school, in honor of a mutual friend of ours who is recovering from surgery. Since we all see each other every day, there was no formal invitation -- I personally told everyone and sent out a bulk e-mail invitation. In the e-mail, I stated the basics: when, where, and directions. I also specifically said, "This is a potluck dinner, so bring something along," and asked people to RSVP. (I also told them to come on time -- a recent column of yours discussing "fashionable latecomers"
[October 25] prompted me to specify.)

I realize that I should have sent written invitations, and it also would have been ideal to ask people to bring specific things. But here's what happened: The earliest arrival was 40 minutes late, and about five people who'd said they were coming didn't show. Of the approximately dozen people who came, only a couple brought food, so there wasn't enough to feed everyone. One person who said he would bring food did not, though he did bring along an extra (uninvited) guest who ate about four portions. I know the party's over, and I know I am not totally in the clear here, but do you think I have a right to be upset? Isn't potluck, after all, the definition for "a party in which all guests bring edible things to share with the other guests"?

No Leftovers

Dear Leftover Madam or Sir,
In fact, you may be "in the clear" after all. Nothing you've described about your behavior raised even one Social Grace eyebrow. I wouldn't have reminded people to "come on time" in an invitation, but apparently the people you socialize with require this kind of poking and prodding (if not firm kicks), so I'm fully prepared to overlook that minor detail. One needn't always send a written invitation, and for a potluck, I'd say that an informal invitation like yours is more correct.

You do have the definition of potluck right: A potluck is a "hostless" event (that's why a formal invitation isn't quite right). The organizer will perhaps open her home for the event and might be responsible for getting the word out, but in the main, true hosts do not ask for contributions from guests. The only other thing I might have done differently would have been to ask folks not only to RSVP but also to let me know what they planned to bring (so as to avoid four tuna casseroles and no desserts).

I realize that I get only one side of the story in these "Am I right to be hurt?" letters, but I have to say that yes, your situation seems to justify being upset. Your potluck's "co-hosts" weren't up to some very basic challenges -- fulfilling commitments, respecting others' time, and sharing. You have the misfortune of attending classes with some inconsiderate louts and loutesses. Wiser now, you can approach future social situations with this lot warily. I would.

Dear Social Grace,
What would you say about a couple who makes out (we're talking thrusting tongues, grinding hips, and hands down pants) on the dance floor at their company's holiday party?


Dear Curious Madam or Sir,
Well, if it were my company party, I'd most certainly say nothing (and try to look elsewhere). Here at Social Grace, Inc., we generally frown on talking about others (and anyway, we know how to have fun with our hands folded demurely in our laps). Since you asked, though, I'll say that such behavior is juvenile (at best) and probably not a good way to secure a promotion. Making out in public is not an event that anyone else wants to witness. When such exhibitionism is not simply a teenage inability to control hormones (combined with nowhere to go, perhaps), it's usually a desperate bid for attention, which I would try to ignore.

Dear Social Grace,
I do not celebrate Christmas, and I'd like something to say to the cashiers at Safeway when they wish me a "Merry Christmas."

Via the Internet

Dear Madam or Sir,
I suspect that by "something to say" you mean "a snappy comeback of some kind." As much as I adore a witty retort, those I could suggest here don't really work. They seem petty and mean, and you and I are better than that. What you really want in this situation is a graceful way to handle a well-intentioned blunder (and let's just assume that it is well intentioned) -- the nobler part of good manners being dealing with others' bad manners.

Let's break it down: When a Safeway cashier wishes you a "Merry Christmas," the true meaning of the statement is almost as far away from any real religious affiliation as "goodbye" is from "God be with you." The true meaning of "Merry Christmas" in that situation is a vague "Have a nice holiday season." It's unfortunate that people so easily forget that Christmas is not celebrated by all, but I'd answer "Merry Christmas" with "Thank you" or "Happy holidays to you, too" or another secular response. If, however, the Christmas wishes were coming from a coworker or acquaintance, I'd gently correct him or her by saying, "Thank you, but I don't celebrate Christmas," followed by an explanation.

Dear Social Grace,
Last year my best friend and I had a falling out. She had just ended a terrible affair that had hurt her very deeply; about three months later, she met a "wonderful man," and three months after that, they were engaged.

Because of how much I care for her, I felt I had to point out that maybe getting married so quickly wasn't such a good idea. I suggested that if this guy was the right one, he would certainly wait around another year for her to get over the old affair completely and get back on her feet emotionally. I wasn't the only one in our circle of friends that felt this way, just the only one to say something.

She accused me of not wanting her to be happy and of belittling her judgment. I was not invited to the wedding, and she won't talk to me at all now. There was a lot more on both sides that led up to the split, but this one thing seems to be at the crux of it. Should I really have kept my mouth shut, thinking she might be about to make one of the biggest mistakes of her life? And can you justify someone ending a 13-year friendship because a friend suggested you might still be too hurt to be thinking clearly? I'm interested in your take on this.

Tried to be a Good Friend

Dear Tried Madam or Sir,
Etiquette prefers that we give people advice only when they ask for it, and that advice should then be couched in gentle terms. Sometimes, we have to let our loved ones make mistakes. Friendship means supporting our friends and trusting that their choices are the ones they need to make.

I don't have Dear Abby's expertise on personal relationships. As an etiquette maven, however, I think you both could have handled this situation with a little more care. You might have held your tongue; your friend might have forgiven your comments as those of a concerned friend. But as you said, there is more to this story than you could put in a letter, so I can't offer definitive advice.

About The Author

Social Grace


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