Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Pay to Play? That's Not Hospitality

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Here is a New Year's resolution for which nobody asked: Do not try to live above your means.

Yes, Miss Manners knows that everyone has resolved to cut back on expenses. Probably every year since time began. It may be more urgent now, but people are always doing that.

However, that is not the resolution that Miss Manners proposes. She is hoping for an end to the now commonplace attempts to live above one's means by means of mean devices to use other people's means.

Sorry. Let her try that one more time.

Over the last decade, a huge number of questions she receives begin with statements of what the writer wants to do: celebrate a birthday, a birth, a graduation or a holiday, take a trip, throw a wedding or anniversary party, furnish a new house, or just give a dinner party or a present.

One might think that these people are writing to request social advice, but in fact they have already planned the specifics. It is to be a birthday party at a certain restaurant, or an extravagant present for their parents' anniversary or a list of things with which they have decided to furnish a new house.

Next comes the line, "But I can't afford it."

All right. Miss Manners is poised to suggest cheaper alternatives. But the next line is never "What can I do instead?"

Rather, the query is how to get others to pay for this.

What galls Miss Manners is that -- this being an etiquette column -- they are requesting "the polite way" to stick others with their bills.

"What is the polite way to tell the guests that dinner will cost about $70 a head?"

"Is it polite to enclose my wish list with the invitation, or should that be only on the Web site?"

"How do I politely inform our parents' friends that they don't need presents, but we're sending them on a cruise, so they should contribute to that?"

Notice that nobody is questioning whether it is polite to make such plans. Paid parties and gift registries are now so widespread as to be thought not just acceptable but obligatory.

Miss Manners hates to disappoint such dedicated auto-philanthropists. She pities their inability to imagine an enjoyable domestic and social life that is within their own reach. Often, what they claim is merely doing things "nicely" and even "properly" turns out to be what etiquette condemns as ostentatious and participants find wearying.

She has been unable to make them understand that they are gutting the very rituals they pretend to be following. The essence of hospitality is sharing what one has, however humble, with others. There is no point to people buying things for one another unless these are voluntary offerings that use symbolism to express thoughtfulness. By making a business of friendship, they are destroying friendship.

We have seen the economic crash that comes from living on credit. The crash when people decide that they have had enough of being gouged by their so-called friends will be even more devastating.

Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.

2008 Judith Martin

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Miss Manners: Have a seat if you’ve got the cash

By Judith Martin
Updated: October 30, 2008

Dear Miss Manners: I believe I already know your stance on cash requests for weddings in lieu of gifts: that it is never appropriate. This may be a new wrinkle (although no doubt you’ve heard and seen them all):

My sister is remarrying at fiftysomething to another fiftysomething. Their expensive wedding invitation states that they already have enough stuff and are requesting guests to “endow a chair.”

At first, I thought I was being asked to fund some needy student’s scholarship or deserving professorship. Then I noticed on the return portion of the invitation, right next to meal choices, was a little box to check for the number of chairs I was willing to endow at $60 apiece.

I went off the deep end, thinking, What next? BYOB? BYOF? Or perhaps we would just bring our own chairs, sidestepping the need for endowment.

Now, I’m in a quandary as to whether I’m allowed to attend the wedding and reception if I don’t pony up $120 for my husband and I.

I’m sure the food and drink at the party will be wonderful, and expensive, but I already have a bad taste in my mouth. How does one politely respond to such a proposal? I would like to be on speaking terms with my sister for the next 50 years.

Gentle Reader: Actually, that is a new one on Miss Manners. And she hates to repeat it, knowing that there will be people who, far from being appalled at this astounding display of greed and vulgarity, will think, “What a good idea.”

Why anyone would want to attend a wedding of people who think of them merely as customers is hard to imagine. But you are the bride’s sister. It would behoove you to commiserate with her for having been reduced to such public begging. You might consider sending her a check, accompanied by a plausible excuse to cover sparing yourself the embarrassment of having bought entrance to her wedding.

Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.

2008 Judith Martin