If it is costing you more to go to parties than to give them, Miss Manners believes there is something wrong with your social life.
And it's not that you're not charging your guests enough. In fact, if you are charging your guests at all, Miss Manners begs to inform you that you are not throwing (to say "giving" would be too ironic) parties. No matter how intimate a recreational activity may be, if money changes hands, it is a business.
Yet pseudo-social activity has, for many people, slyly replaced much of real social life. The dissatisfactions they air with surface etiquette problems -- those who plan or give such events are dismayed that their so-called guests don't follow guest etiquette, and those who are invited are dismayed because they are not treated hospitably -- fail to take account of this cruel substitution.
Miss Manners is always being asked in plaintive tones whether the old social rules about answering invitations, sending thanks and reciprocating are still in effect. The answer is a resounding "yes." But they apply to true social occasions, and one cannot reasonably expect the same of paid entertainment.
It is useful, for emotional as well as etiquette reasons, to be able to tell the difference.
You may, for example, notice that your letter box is fuller than ever of what seem to be invitations, requesting the pleasure of your company at this and cordially inviting you to that. There seems to be no lack of receptions, cocktail parties, balls and birthdays.
Perhaps it makes you feel flatteringly sought-after. Right up until the moment of glimpsing the little enclosed card with the words "Make checks payable to -- ."
At this point Miss Manners, who believes that the obligations connected with a real invitation are sacred, would not bat an eye if you threw the thing right into the trash.
Whether there is a need for a commercial pseudo-social life is something Miss Manners is too weary to dispute. If groups of people want to support this cause or honor that person by selling tickets to something that has the trappings, if not the soul, of a party, she will not grudge it to them, provided she can spend the time on her own chaise longue.
She just doesn't want the participants weeping to her that the rules were violated, when they themselves don't seem to understand which social rules apply and which do not.
The first rule concerning the hybrid of commerce and carousing is that an event requiring an admission fee is not an act of hospitality. You cannot make any financial demands on people invited to such private events as weddings or anniversary parties.
And you should not phrase the announcement of a paid activity so that it seems to be an invitation from a host. Even though certain people may generously do all the work, they are a committee rather than hosts.
For example, a company that gives a testimonial dinner for one of its employees may, since it is paying the bills, issue a standard invitation in the name of the officers as hosts. But if such a dinner is given by colleagues for one of their own, with the expectation that anyone attending will pay his or her own way, it is done with a letter, and one is asked to be a participant rather than invited to be a guest.
In social life, every invitation must be answered. No matter how much the organizers of paid events wail that they too need to know how many people are attending, Miss Manners cannot see her way clear to demanding that one must formally decline solicitations. It would be like requiring anyone who received a store catalogue to write back saying, "I don't think I'll be buying anything."
The rule, therefore, is acceptances only. Let the committee know if you are planning to attend, and with whom.
In social life, only those who are invited are invited. But when tickets are sold, Miss Manners sees no harm in inquiring whether a substitute will do just as well, or if additional tickets may be purchased for others. Targeting individuals to buy tickets, no matter how snobbishly the committee stewed over the names, cannot be construed as the personal honor that sending a private invitation is.
Nor need there be thank-you letters or reciprocation afterward. Miss Manners does not object to these, but points out that they are not necessary when one has paid one's own way.
But there also can't be complaints about being dropped from such a list, being seated in accordance with the amount of money paid, or being socially ignored by someone whose causes one has supported. In these situations, as opposed to the deep obligations hospitality creates, the contract is fulfilled when the event is over.
The trouble with your social life if you are paying for it is that you don't have one.
Because each of my parents is alone (they do not live together), I invited them for Thanksgiving and Christmas. At dinner they got into a loud conversation, and to their surprise, I asked them to take their coffee and go to another part of the house to complete the discussion.
They always talk about the Depression and how hard it was washing diapers in the bathtub, and even cleaning a chicken. We were ready to throw up.
What to do? Keep inviting them, as I have for 25 years, and put up with bad manners and the same conversation? What happened to party manners?
Miss Manners supposes you will just have to learn to develop them. For a host to insult guests and banish them from the table on the grounds that their conversation is boring is rudeness of truly startling dimensions.
Even more amazing is that your objection arises because your separated parents, when thrown together on family occasions, use the opportunity to reminisce peaceably. Miss Manners invites you to look in her mailbox to discover what most people's estranged parents say when they find themselves under the same roof.