"What a shame it is that nobody gives dinner parties any more," many people are given to saying. Miss Manners always clucks sympathetically. (Clucking is a lost art, which saves the work of saying, "Oh, how true, how true." Remind Miss Manners to demonstrate it for you some time.)
But the truth is that some people do still give dinner parties, and the ones who are complaining probably went to them, had a wonderful time, and then failed to reciprocate. What they really mean is that they don't give dinner parties any more, and that they are helping discourage those who do.
Goodness knows there are enough reasons to be discouraged, even before the hosts check their answering machines in vain for return invitations. More and more of them are reporting that from their first overtures, the guests act as if they would be doing the hosts a favor by attending.
First, they ignore the invitation. When the hosts get panicky and call up to say, "We hope we can expect you to dinner next Saturday," a maneuver that used to strike shame into the most hardened heart and lead the delinquents into flustered stories about lost mail and family emergencies, people now continue to hedge.
"We'll try to make it," they say, insinuating that they are subject to last-minute royal commands, or mood swings that preclude making any advance dinner plans except month-ahead reservations in trendy and supercilious restaurants.
Then they try to renegotiate the terms of the invitation. The married people want to come without their spouses, and the single people want to come with them (that is, their sub-spouses, other people's spouses, their children or their dogs). They demand to know who the other guests are. They order their own menus. They stack engagements on the same night so that they don't fully attend any one of the events. They may or may not show up, as likely as not late and dressed for some other activity.
To round it all off, they show no gratitude. Etiquette demands that those who have been entertained at dinner express their thanks not only at the door but again in a letter or telephone call. But then etiquette doesn't always get what she demands.
Etiquette also demands that people who have been entertained reciprocate in kind, but Miss Manners has always been most reasonable about how this is done. She discourages friends from counting exactly how many times each entertained the other, so long as there is some rough form of taking turns. Nor does she require that the return invitations be as elaborate as the original ones -- each according to his own style and ability is the rule in social life.
Nevertheless, there is resistance. Those who accept hospitality but do not dispense it use one of these arguments:
They have no time.
They don't have the equipment -- the setting, spoons, whatever.
They haven't enough money.
They are too young to be expected to entertain people who have been at it for years.
They are too old to be expected to entertain people who ought to take up the burden.
They are single and cannot manage it alone.
They are married and haven't enough time with their spouses.
They have children and are therefore exclusively concerned with their needs.
They don't have children, and other people who do won't want to socialize with them because they are exclusively taken up by the children; besides, these children make unpleasant guests.
As you can figure, there aren't too many people left. Yet Miss Manners would like to point out that some people, even those who could claim one of these categories, do nevertheless entertain -- at least until they get bitter about not being invited back.
Miss Manners's interest in keeping the custom of home entertainment alive is not just sentiment. She believes home entertaining to be a cornerstone of civilization, the cultivation of disinterested friendship being one of the joys and comforts of life.
Money, time, age and family life are not valid excuses for not doing one's share. Breakfasts and teas, with little work and less cost, count as returns. There is no perfect stage of life that makes entertaining effortless, and waiting for one would consume a (friendless) lifetime. But children and adults can be entertained separately but simultaneously.
And people who entertain flawlessly nevertheless appreciate being invited to leave their perfect settings now and then.
Returning to my office early one afternoon, I was delayed by a funeral procession. I frequently study such processions for clues about the deceased.
This seemed to be for someone who was not very old. The mourners were in their thirties and forties, and the cars were upscale. To my dismay, I noticed that several mourners were using their car phones. It has always seemed to me odd but unavoidable to juxtapose an ancient ritual on the everyday bustle of traffic, but the phenomenon of squeezing in a few business calls between the church and the cemetery truly offended my sensibilities. Am I being too stuffy?
Miss Manners would let slip the word "nosy," were she not afraid of the image of the stuffed nosy.
It is all very well for you to pass the time by speculating on the funerals of strangers, but Miss Manners will not join you in the sport of presuming evil of the mourners. How do you know those were business calls?
It is her belief that one mourner was calling home to alert someone there how many people would be coming back, another was saying, "Keep an eye on Aunt Emily, who seemed in bad shape at the service, and you know she has a weak heart," and so on.