Q: A friend called to say that she and her husband would be grilling steaks that evening and would like to invite me to join them. I asked what I could bring and we agreed on a salad.
Then she put her husband on the phone. He said that I could reimburse him for my steak when I arrived!
I was so stunned that I simply said, “OK.” However, within the hour, I called back and gracefully declined the invitation, saying that I had misjudged how much work I had brought home for the evening.
I did not reveal that I had been insulted … but I was. It has been my understanding that it is OK for a dinner guest to bring a side dish but that it is not acceptable to ask guests for a cash contribution to the main dish!
A: While sharing your horror, Miss Manners cannot say that she is surprised. The time-honored notion that a host is someone who freely offers hospitality, with no more expectation than that of being a guest in turn, has been seriously eroded.
It is years since she was left reeling by a Gentle Reader’s report of relatives, including the host’s grandmother, being charged for Thanksgiving dinner at his home. It would have been nice to be able to dismiss this as an anomaly or a joke, but it was only the first of dozens of such complaints.
How did this happen?
You yourself have accepted the idea that the guest must contribute to the meal. Miss Manners can understand that a last-minute informal invitation could prompt an offer to participate, and she knows that truly cooperative meals — where members of a group, for example, or friends or relatives agree to share responsibilities and have a say in the organization — are a convenience.
But you have also added that a dinner guest, presumably attending a dinner party, should bring at least a side dish. Many people now believe this, and many hosts have come to expect this to the point of issuing instructions. From there it is a small step to contributions in cash.
A Gentle Reader has written the logical next steps:
“I believe that charging for food/service in one’s home changes the nature of that hospitality into a business transaction, with all the entitlements of those transactions.
“So, when receiving the bill, not only is a tip in order, but also feedback on the food, service and ambiance. Most businesses appreciate that kind of feedback.
“If ‘invited’ again, I guess my response would be that, for $50-plus, there are a lot of places I’d rather go, where I can order what I like, where it’s better prepared, where the service is better and the atmosphere more congenial, so ‘No, thanks.’
“People who invite others into their home and charge them surely have hides thick enough to withstand such, um, honesty (or is that spelled h-o-s-t-i-l-i-t-y?)
“I hope this tickled Miss Manners’ funny bone and did not add to the vapors that such behavior surely brought on.”
This did bring on the vapors, but also a wicked smile at the idea that at the end of the evening, you could merely have tipped your host.
Judith Martin writes the Miss Manners column with help from her son, Nicholas Ivor Martin, and her daughter, Jacobina Martin. Send your questions to Miss Manners at her website, MissManners.com; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.