Miss Manners: Most hosts are thankful for empty-handed guests

October 2, 2011

One might suppose that Miss Manners would be charmed by the generosity of the Gentle Reader who writes, “I hate it when someone says, ‘Don’t bring anything’ to a get-together. Is it better to honor their request, or to bring something small anyway? And if I should bring it anyway (never arrive empty-handed), do you have any suggestions?”

No, and she is not all that charmed, either. If she were not terminally polite, she would reply, “Do you apply that principle to all aspects of your social life — that No means Yes?”

The notion that a guest should not arrive at a dinner party “empty-handed” caught on in America only comparatively recently. The European idea from which it evolved has to do with bringing flowers or chocolates — never wine, which carries the insulting implication that something decent to drink is needed because the host’s wine is likely to be inferior. And certainly not dinner.

But here the custom got mixed up with the jolly American tradition of cooperative meals — picnics, covered-dish suppers, family reunions and improvised parties by students. Nothing wrong with those, as long as everyone understands the deal.

Now guests entering a gala dinner party look as if they are in the express line at the grocery store, each carrying one item.

Some hosts love this. Counting it as less work, they forget that they are obliged to work off the debt and will never be free to visit others without pots sloshing away on their laps.

Some who fancy themselves hosts not only appreciate this, but exploit it by not waiting for offers, but assigning the catering to people they have the nerve to call their guests.

But people who actually like to entertain complain to Miss Manners that they hate it. Guests who insist on bringing something drive them crazy. Here is a sampling of many such complaints:

-- “I have never wanted guests to bring contributions because (1) they are guests; (2) I REALLY enjoy having a dinner party; and (3) it increases complexity if I have to accommodate someone else’s dishes in my menu. But I encounter insistence and real pressure from some who believe that they MUST make a contribution. HELP!”

-- “When my boyfriend and I host small dinner parties, our guests always ask, multiple times, what they can bring. I truly enjoy planning and preparing, and am certainly not breaking the bank. I try to create menus that flow nicely from hors d’oeuvres to dessert, and enjoy being the hostess.”

-- “I spent several hours in the kitchen preparing a superb meal, a three-course meal, including dessert. Then my guests brought a cake which we had to eat for dessert instead of the one I prepared.”

-- “One of my guests offered to bring a fruit salad, and commandeered my kitchen for the better part of an hour to wash, slice/dice and arrange her fruit. I was frantically trying to do my last-minute preparations, so the intrusion threw me into a tailspin, and then my guest wondered why I was so frazzled.”

-- “After we told a friend not to bring anything, she arrived with a main entree, a salad, a side dish and dessert of a quantity that would serve the entire guest list. She placed the items on the buffet and invited all of our guests to enjoy the food she had prepared. I could not help but feel insulted and hurt.”

-- “I relish planning even the smallest details, such as what wine should be served and what dessert best complements the meal. Is there anything I can do to convince my charming, caring friends that not every event needs to be potluck?”

You can say, “Thank you; I’ve made dinner, so we’ll enjoy this another day.”

Visit Miss Manners at her Web site, www.missmanners.com, where you can send her your questions.

@ 2011, by Judith Martin

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