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