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In Good Taste: Who Pays For The Party?

Feasting Peasants in a Tavern, Adriaen van Ostade, 1673/wikimedia commons
Feasting Peasants in a Tavern, Adriaen van Ostade, 1673/wikimedia commons

Dear Etta Kate: My friend recently celebrated her birthday. Her husband invited ten of us to a dinner at a moderately-priced restaurant. I ordered from the "middle of the menu" as I was taught. When the check came, it sat on the table for fifteen minutes. Finally, the guest next to me picked it up and began figuring his portion. Then others began to do the same! Was I wrong to assume that "hosting" a dinner meant paying for it? It wasn't extravagant, and the host is financially secure (if that even matters).

Sincerely, Mouth (and Wallet) Hanging Open in Oakhurst

Dear Open:

As Etta Kate gets older, social situations seem to get fuzzier. Changing her eyeglass prescription will not remedy any blurring of the lines of social comportment in this age of rapid change.

While Etta Kate may wish for the confused host to write and ask if he made a gaffe, she knows it is unlikely he even noticed that he did. (She does not wish to consider the possibility that he knows and does not care.)

I think we can agree that the purpose of a celebratory gathering is to share warm camaraderie with friends. Let’s presume the avoidance of awkwardness is key to achieving that goal. Etta Kate also understands one cannot know another’s economic comfort level, so a host might prefer a “pay your own way” get-together, rather than shoulder what can be a considerable burden. Etta Kate herself has observed how “Chicken when they pay for it” people sometimes morph into “Surf and Turf when it’s free” monsters. One can hardly blame a host for not wanting to risk that, especially when cocktails are involved.

However, Mr. Pseudo-Host, which I’ll call anyone coordinating a party but not paying for it – and not in a derogatory way, you understand – has an obligation to communicate his intentions through cleverly crafted, but still fairly direct, key phrases. He must inform those invited what to expect.

Subtle cues: “I am treating my lovely wife to a birthday dinner at Parlez Vous restaurant and am reaching out to a few friends who might want to come along – we’d love to see you there.” A half-hearted outreach implies you mean so much to them, but not enough to treat you as their guest.

Less subtle: “We’re celebrating Bitsy’s birthday and I’m springing for champagne and appetizers at Maison Magnum. Please come and join us for those festivities, and if you’d like to stay and dine, let me know and I’ll tell the maitre’d to get us a bigger table.” You will be treated to a specific level of repast, anything beyond that is your undertaking. Alternately, the host may arrange for a menu he has selected in advance; guests must not “upgrade” their orders.

Blunt-force clarity: “Bitsy is celebrating a landmark birthday at La Grande Cheque. We wish we could treat everyone, yet sadly we just can’t right now. But we’d love to have you there to celebrate. If you cannot join us for dinner, we’re offering cake and ice cream around 8:30, and please no presents… just your presence.”

Now, dear one, the host did not seek my advice, but you did. Sad to say, you are likely to receive unclear “invitations with a possible price tag” in the future. While admittedly, it is a bit much for Pseudo-Hosts to expect guests to pay for a gift, dinner, gratuity, and transportation; I must caution you that unless you hear the words, “Please accept our invitation to be our guest for dinner at Chateau Carte Blanche,” you must be prepared for the tedious division of a group check and should expect to pay your own way.

If you feel paying for your own fare is unfair, you may, of course, politely decline any social offer that makes you uncomfortable.

Etta Kate is the nom de plume of a business consultant who maintains anonymity to protect her clients’ privacy. If you have a question about food and dining etiquette, Etta Kate will be happy to help.