Miss Manners: Focus on the Company, Not the Condiments

Friday, April 27, 2018

Dear Miss Manners: I’m usually adept and at ease when entertaining or being entertained, but for some time I’ve noticed a perplexing problem when dining at friends’ homes.

I’m often offered whipped cream, butter, a Coke, etc., only to be served fake “whipped cream” and “butter” right out of a plastic tub! (The containers are the least of it.) The “Coke” has occasionally been a no-calorie, store-brand carbonated beverage that in no way could be mistaken for a “Coke.”

The worst was when a friend suddenly went on a low-sodium diet and didn’t salt any of the dishes she cooked for a dinner party. The entire table was surreptitiously looking around, trying to see if anyone else noticed the food had no taste at all. When someone timidly asked for salt, a shaker was produced that contained a bitter salt substitute. Ugh.

My friends are educated, reasonable people. Shouldn’t they be honest about what they are actually offering? Doesn’t a hostess have a responsibility to have on hand things that people actually like, even if she doesn’t?

And what is the correct thing to do when the misnamed item is in front of you and you know it will ruin whatever you’re about to eat? (I’m not a food snob, but let’s call a spade a spade. A tub of “yellow something” isn’t butter!)

Gentle Reader: How was the company? Or did you not look up from your disappointing plate?

These are your friends, not your chefs. If they were selling that food, you would be justified in criticizing the ingredients. But they invited you into their homes at a time when few people entertain, partly because of the problem of dealing with food fussing.

Dear Miss Manners: When someone asks you to dance, is it impolite to say no?

Gentle Reader: Yes, but it is not rude to say “I’m sitting this one out” or “I promised this dance to someone, and he should be here momentarily.”

Dear Miss Manners: Are the rules of etiquette the same for invited houseguests vs. self-invited houseguests?

Gentle Reader: The only difference is that you needn’t let self-invited guests cross your threshold. However, once you have let them in, Miss Manners will not allow you to classify first- and second-class guests.

Dear Miss Manners: My brother-in-law passed away suddenly, and his wife is planning to have a “celebration of life” memorial. That’s fine.

However, she and her husband were party people, and so are their friends. The memorial she is planning is described as a “happy” party.

Most of the extended family are not drinkers and prefer not to attend an event that will consist of what we anticipate will be heavy drinking. I think we should attend, sit in the back with our sodas, and remember my brother-in-law more quietly, just by being there.

Much of the rest of the family doesn’t want to drive all the way there and back (six hours each way) just to sit around watching people drink. There’s some discussion of having a more somber (and sober) memorial closer to home for the family.

I think this shows disrespect to our lost loved one and his wife (though I’d prefer to attend that myself). Suggestions on what we should do?

Gentle Reader: Picking a fight with the principal mourner after a funeral is no more productive than picking a fight with a bride. Less so, as the mourner is often more sympathetic — and more likely to burst into tears.

This is not to say that the mourner is acting intelligently or responsibly. The increasingly common practice of throwing a party smacks of celebrating the death, and while this may not bother your brother-in-law’s wife, it understandably grates on other relatives’ nerves.

The distant relatives may send heartfelt condolences — and apologies — in place of themselves. As a closer relative, you may have to frown and bear it, especially if your brother-in-law’s wife is also your sister.

Dear Miss Manners: Our son and daughter-in-law are expecting our first grandchild. On the shower invitation (hosted by her sister), it listed stores at which they have registered. As a frame of reference, I decided to see what type of things they were requesting.

To my horror, they were requesting an $850 stroller, a $900 crib, a $1,100 baby dresser, an $800 rocking chair and many other high-priced items to furnish their baby’s nursery.

I realize things have changed over the past 20 to 30 years since I had children, but I found it classless and greedy. I mentioned it to my son, and he said that he “sort of participated” and “this is what everyone does.” He said they were encouraged to register for everything so they could receive a discount on items they didn’t get from the shower.

Needless to say, I have had differences with my daughter-in-law’s casual attitude when spending and speaking for other people’s money. She doesn’t seem to have any qualms about asking for everything she wants.

Unless they are flowing in money we don’t know about, or have a very skewed perspective of what’s important, I’d be hard-pressed to believe they would spend $1,100 on a baby dresser if they don’t get it as a gift. What is the etiquette on baby registries?

Gentle Reader: Your son is about to get first-hand experience in why neither his nor his wife’s behavior makes for a comfortable home.

Let us assume that your son meant that he “sort of participated” in the selection of the registry items, and not in creating the impending grandchild. He will not be charmed when little Liam is himself old enough to avoid responsibility by saying he wasn’t there when it happened, that “everyone does it,” and that it was his sister Olivia’s (in this case the store’s) fault.

As to your daughter-in-law’s behavior, Miss Manners considers baby registries to be the etiquette equivalent of childish grocery store demands for chocolate breakfast cereal, ice cream and checkout-line candy. Being the grandparent, it is your prerogative to be blissfully unaware of all these newfangled ideas and to bring whatever present you think pleasing and appropriate.

Dear Miss Manners: My brother lives in another state, about three hours away. His father-in-law, a man I have spent time with on a number of occasions, has died after a lengthy illness. My brother never called to say that he died, or when or where the receiving hours or funeral were. But his wife did post information to her Facebook page. What is my responsibility in this situation?

Gentle Reader: In an ideal world, you would express your condolences on your brother’s and his wife’s loss, apologize for missing the funeral and excuse yourself by explaining that you were unaware of the death — all without implicitly criticizing them for failing to inform you.

The last is particularly challenging, because your brother’s wife may believe that the social media posting was the announcement, a point on which Miss Manners and she disagree. However, since one generally wishes to comfort mourners, not make them feel worse, she advises you to stick to the first two and let items three and four pass without comment.

Dear Miss Manners: My daughter was engaged to a young man who wanted a big wedding. They both saved to pay for it, but in practice, the burden of organizing and paying deposits fell on my daughter, with the expectation that later they would either join their finances or he would reimburse her.

Well, two months before the wedding, he ran off with a pregnant girlfriend. My daughter is overwhelmed by the emotional fallout and the financial obligations. I volunteered to notify the guests about the cancellation.

Some guests, especially on our side of the family, complained about their nonrefundable plane tickets and demanded that we reimburse them. What is our obligation to these people? We are not in dire financial straits, but neither are they, and I feel that all financial support I can muster should be going to my daughter.

Emotionally, I am appalled that so many relatives and friends saw fit to complain and demand more from us instead of offering any words of support to my daughter. The only words that were offered were along the lines of, “I am sorry about your wedding, but can I have a few hundred dollars to cover my canceled plane ticket and my new dress?”

I cannot see this situation as anything other than them showing their true colors, and I don’t want to have any relationship with them anymore.

Gentle Reader: It never ceases to amaze Miss Manners how, even under the best circumstances, weddings — a time for joy and warm family feelings — consistently bring out the worst in people.

While your relatives have behaved abhorrently, they may well be rebelling against the circuslike atmosphere and financial outpouring that weddings typically incur. And now they feel that it was all for naught.

That does not condone their callous behavior; it just produces in Miss Manners a shred of sympathy for most modern wedding guests.

You have no financial obligation to these people other than returning any presents your daughter may have received. If you wanted to address your family and friends’ travel concerns, you could have hosted a gathering in the wedding’s stead — presumably excusing your hapless daughter from attendance. But there is no reason to do so for such unfeeling people.

Miss Manners is written by Judith Martin, her son, Nicholas Ivor Martin, and her daughter, Jacobina Martin. You are invited to email your etiquette questions from www.missmanners.com.