Does a same-gender couple ruin the seating arrangement at a formal dinner party?
Miss Manners imagines she hears a deep sigh coming from across the generations. Her dear grandmamma felt persecuted by exactly such situations.
Not that this lady would have given a fig (figs being what exasperated ladies of those days didn't give, in place of something worse) who cared to mate with whom. All she asked was that they not tell her about it. This ban firmly applied to the proudly respectable, as well as to everyone else who hadn't yet been caught, and it no doubt saved the lady a great deal of tedium.
Her brothers obliged her by refraining from explaining why they were showing up with this lady or that. However, there was a sister who showed a shocking lack of interest in hypocrisy. Furthermore, that lady was inclined to take more than her fair share. Her idea of a basic social unit was herself, her husband and the gentleman who was the third member of their permanent menage, occasionally to be supplemented by one of her passing interests.
And that is the way she insisted on showing up for Grandmother's dinner parties, making havoc of the seating arrangements. And you may be sure that Miss Manners's grandmother did care about seating arrangements.
Apparently even now, she is not alone.
"When my partner and I host formal dinners," writes a Gentle Reader, "we each sit at an end of the table and try to seat the guests so the sexes alternate and no one sits next to his or her partner. We are happy to receive same-sex couples, but I wonder if you might clarify matters.
"We normally seat an invited individual in accordance with his sex and seat his or her guest in a seat that would ordinarily be used by the other sex. One hopes that the guest would not be subject to ironic remarks, like 'You must be the wife (or husband)' based on the seating.
"Still, are we following the correct procedure?
"From the other direction, if one receives an invitation for self and guest to a formal dinner, should the invitee advise the hostess that a same-sex couple will be coming, to allow the possible invitation of two members of the other sex in order to balance the seating? I feel the hosts have to make everyone comfortable and that polite society has accepted same-sex couples. How do we succeed in a formal setting?"
By keeping up with change, a phrase Miss Manners does not often have occasion to use.
It is more than a quarter of a century since Miss Manners herself declared that the boy-girl seating method, desirable as it may be when feasible, should yield to such considerations as inviting interesting people and seating potentially compatible people together. It is not only Miss Manners's grandmother who was being driven crazy by this, but unattached ladies who were being ignored and unattached gentlemen who were being spoiled.
Hosts should always be advised of the identity of their guests, and they need to know who is part of an established couple, so they can separate them at the table. That rule is still in effect, no matter how many fond couples tell Miss Manners that they cannot bear to eat apart.
Dear Miss Manners:
I am dating a gentleman who has been divorced for approximately two years. We have been dating longer than two years.
He continues to have a social life with his ex-spouse that I feel is inappropriate and very hurtful to myself. For instance, he takes his daughter every week to his ex-wife's house at the end of his parental visitation. He stays sometimes for three to four hours. He also invites her to things such as a New Year's party at his house, etc.
I have confronted him about this and let him know how hurtful it is to me. He backs off doing such things and then will slowly start them again. For instance, his ex-wife is having surgery and he will be allowing her to stay at his home for two or three days (and, yes, nights). What's this about? What should I do?
It's about kindness and compassion for someone he has loved and who is the mother of his child.
As for what you could do, Miss Manners suggests remembering that you had no such objections about his seeing a third party when he was still married.
Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.
(c) 2005, Judith Martin