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With Friends Like These ... 

Three thorny dilemmas about confronting those close to you

Wednesday, Aug 31 2005
Dear Social Grace,

My partner was invited to a weekend-long 40th-birthday celebration for one of his friends. The friend has invited 20 close friends but not their partners.

To me this is in extremely bad taste. I have tried to think of when it's acceptable to exclude someone's other half, and the only times I can think of are baby or wedding showers and bachelor parties.

My partner's thought is that it's his friend's birthday, so the guest list is up to him. I feel that it's tacky to have that sort of restricted invitation list. (I would understand if I didn't get along with this friend, but that's not the case.)

Should my partner attend guilt-free? Should my partner say anything to the birthday boy? I almost just want to crash the party.

Uninvited Current Partners Club

Dear Uninvited Madam or Sir,

I sympathize with your displeasure -- no one likes to be excluded from a party. But it's not impolite to craft a guest list that includes only some people. Sadly, not everyone can be invited to every event. (I'll note, however, that it is unusual, and potentially insulting, to invite only half of a social couple to a wedding.) In fact, occasional "spouse-free weekends" are an indispensable part of many friendships -- and spouseships.

If you were the only significant other who had been excluded, I'd be ferociously supporting your viewpoint, and I'd join you in calling this fellow's behavior "tacky." But the invitation does fall within the bounds of proper behavior, even though it is, imaginably (given details not mentioned in your letter), inconsiderate.

So don't crash the party. And as to whether your partner can attend guilt-free -- well, I'd say that's very much up to you.

Dear Social Grace,

I get on really well with my housemate and consider him a close friend. I am gay, and he is, as far as I have always assumed, straight. The other day when I went to use my computer, I saw that in one of the windows there was a profile on a well-known gay site, with some information about him wanting to meet up with men.

Of course, this is none of my business. The thing is, a few months ago, we sat up one night drinking and talking about the kind of deep things that you usually talk about only when you're drunk. He told me that nobody really knows the real him, that he got very depressed, and that he felt he couldn't confide in anyone.

My feeling is that he needs someone to confide in about being gay. (There are a few other factors leading to this conclusion.) I wonder if I could be failing him as a friend by not mentioning it, even though that might be extremely uncomfortable for him and put a strain on our relationship. Another part of me says that this is none of my business, and that if he wants to tell someone he will do so in his own time.

Do I have a duty one way or the other? Is there a certain kind of etiquette for this situation?


Dear Chris,

When it comes to intimate interpersonal relationships -- with close friends, relatives, and so on -- "the right thing to do" can become less well defined. Of course, it's wise to attend to the manners details with these people (your "pleases" and "thank yous") -- and such details are too often overlooked. But in more complicated matters, "etiquette" is often reduced to the Golden Rule fundamentals: Be kind, be respectful, act in the other person's best interest, and so on. Knowing your friend, you will have to figure out what would truly be in his best interest.

But my advice is this: Rather than "confronting" your friend with what you guess (and the truth of it may be very different), spend some time making sure that he knows you are someone he can trust. Let him know that he can rely on you, and that you are there to talk about any problems he's having (maybe you could even share your coming-out story). And then spend time together doing things that encourage conversation -- and by that I mean long walks and shared meals, not drinking to excess (or not necessarily). Sometimes being a good friend just means being there, without saying anything.

Dear Social Grace,

My best friend is a television freak. Most of the times that she invites me over to her home, the TV is never turned off. She and her husband and son make no attempt at conversation, not even to comment on the programs. My attempts (during commercials) are met with either silence or a distracted "uh-huh." One evening they didn't even get up to answer the door, just shouted, "Come in!" when I rang the bell. I am not just dropping in; I've been invited specifically to come over.

My friend and her husband can be quite entertaining when the television is off, and at these times I enjoy their company. I've known her for 11 years now, and we are very close. I don't want to write her off. I just don't want to lose another evening in front of a blaring television.

She won't visit my home because she doesn't like my neighborhood. It seems rude to say I will only visit them if the television stays off. I don't actually think that they are intending to be rude; I think that they're just oblivious. Could you suggest a polite way to tell my friend that I truly enjoy her company, but that it's important to me that she actually be present when I visit?

Thank you,
Jen Anderson

Dear Ms. Anderson,

When someone turns to an etiquette-advice column with a friendship problem, she generally wants to be given a nonconfrontational way to deal with that problem. So here's that advice: When you visit her home, and no move is made to turn attention away from the TV and toward you, excuse yourself with a friendly, "Well, I see this isn't a very good time for a visit. I'll be off -- let's catch up another time." Then leave cheerily and speedily. Or if you are invited over on a Wednesday evening, say, "Only if it's not going to disrupt your TV programs -- isn't there something that you usually watch on Wednesday evening?" This way, you are not accusing your friend of bad behavior; instead, you are allowing her to choose (and learn), of her own accord, a more polite course of action.

Another thing advice-seekers often want is verification that the problematic friend is behaving rudely. And here, I will happily provide that: Yes, your friend is being insensitive, but her etiquette error seems to be one of ignorance, not of malice.

My further comments are these: Etiquette often prefers that we steer clear of confrontation -- that we simply bear others' unpleasant or annoying habits. But when a close friend's behavior becomes unbearable, you are allowed to talk to her about it. And keep in mind that relationships, like all things, change. This woman may end up being a friend with whom you were once close, but with whom you now occasionally chat while watching television. It might be time to find some new close friends.

About The Author

Social Grace


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