Separating Couples at Dinner Parties

I recently bought a copy of the incredibly fascinating The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser, which is all about the origins of our customs surrounding dining and meals in Western culture, and I have great plans to share bits and pieces from it over time.

A tiny thing that Visser mentions is an intriguing piece of etiquette, which in my experience can be very controversial, the “rule” that at dinner parties couples (married ones, traditionally), should be split up in the seating arrangement. Previously my understanding of the reasoning for the rule was that couples talk to each other all the time and that it’s more fun for them to get to talk to other people for an evening (which, I think, is a totally fair interpretation of the rule).

However, Visser says that:

It has always been a rule of politeness that people in groups should show no favouritism. There must be no whispering in corners, no sharing of private jokes or blatant preferences for particular company; attention should be given to everyone present, as equally as possible. This is the reason why it is customary to separate engaged and married couples at table. Etiquette manuals remind us that dinner parties are for opening out towards other people; pairs or groups who do not want to do this should stay home.

Now, I’ve been to events where this was practiced, and been seated with the “outsider” (to the hosting group) spouses, and honestly, I think being separated from one’s partner really does make one stand on their own feet and have a conversation of their own rather than simply listen to their partner talk. Of course, this absolutely demands that everyone acknowledge the social contract of the dinner party to really give it your all in making conversation and trying to draw everyone in speaking distance into the conversation and not leaving anyone out. And as a somewhat anxious person (who has literally turned around at the door of an event and gone home because of nerves), I totally understand the urge to cling to the one person you know. But it really is a useful skill to be able to make “dinner party conversation” with anyone, on your own, because these situations do come up!

It should be noted that hosts also have the obligation to seriously look at their guest list and try to match up people who will have a good time talking to each other and hopefully will be able to draw useful social and business connections from the meeting. (Though the New York Times says that that particular kind of dinner party is dead and buried.)

Tell me in the comments if you’ve ever been separated from a partner at a party!

The Etiquette of Reciprocity

You do not have to host the same type of party as a Duke. [Via]

When you are given hospitality by someone, it is an etiquette rule that you must reciprocate. Now this makes a lot of people uncomfortable because maybe you don’t have as nice a house or as much money and can’t always entertain in the same style that someone has entertained out. However, that is not the way reciprocity works. It’s not really a tit for tat kind of a deal.

If Mr.and Mrs. Hobnoby have you over for a four course gourmet dinner prepared by their live in chef, there is no expectation that you will invite them to a similar meal in your fourth floor walk up. Part of the reason God invented the cocktail party is so you can “reciprocate” many invitations in one big go that doesn’t cost you a lot per person. Unfortunately, a good hostess gift does not count as reciprocation- it is merely a (important) token of thanks.

Happily, you don’t even necessarily have to reciprocate with some kind of big event. Maybe you have helped someone move every year for the last five years, maybe you always do Friday movies and wine at your place, and maybe you are the person who arranges your weekly lunch date. All of that counts as reciprocation. As you can see, it’s really all about making sure you are both pulling your weight in the relationship and one person isn’t taking advantage of the other. Merely extending an invitation actually fulfills your obligation to reciprocate, and if you are refused, you needn’t do any more (however, this also might mean that the person doesn’t want to be friends with you!)

I should also note that it is important to also let people reciprocate your hospitality.  Even if you intend to be generous, always wanting to host at your house doesn’t give others the chance to shine. Plus, you don’t want to give off the impression that other people’s hospitality isn’t good enough for you.

There are some exceptions to the need for reciprocity. You almost never need to really reciprocate with your parents and in-laws, the parent-child relationship is almost by necessity one where the sides are very uneven. However, occasionally treating your parents to something never goes amiss. I would also say that being treated by a friend’s parent is similar- when they take you and their child to dinner, you are really the guest of the child and should be reciprocating with them (hopefully you will also invite them along when your parents are visiting). Also, a boss employee relationship is one where if your boss takes you to lunch, you do not need to reciprocate (same as how you do not give gifts to your boss) because of the difference in power between the two of you.

How Do I Make It Clear This Is A “Friends Only” Easter Dinner?

Unexpected guests are never fun [Via]

Dear Uncommon Courtesy,

 I’m writing because I recently had a problem come up multiple times and I’m not sure if I’m the person practicing bad etiquette or if my friends are. Basically, every year I throw a small Easter dinner. It is small because my apartment can only seat 8 people maximum. Generally I invite my best lady friends, I make them Easter baskets, and I serve a 4 course meal with wine. The majority of people invited are repeats year-to-year.

This year I sent out a paperless post invitation to seven of my lady friends. 3 of them came back to me asking if they could bring their significant others. All the ladies who asked have been to dinner parties at my house and know how squished my apartment is. Also, the invitation showed that the RSVP only counted for one person, and there was no option to invite others.

I feel like this puts me between a rock and a hard place because if I say no I seem insensitive for not understanding that they no longer can function unattached to another person. If I say yes and one of my originally invited friends who hasn’t responded yet then responds that she can come, I have to tell her that her space was taken. Further, an extension of their request to bring a +1 is that they’re also asking me to spend a decent amount of money and make an Easter basket for someone who I don’t know well at all.

Is it ok for me to say no, or should I have assumed that if I invite a friend with a boyfriend or girlfriend to something I must always invite the +1? If it’s okay to say no, do you have suggestions for how to do this as politely as possible?


SO Confused


Many of the etiquette tips we’ve found focus on how only those whose names are on the invitation are invited, and it is rude to ask to bring a date, even if it is a long-term significant other. Amy Vanderbilt wrote, “Invitations to company dinners are not lightly treated. The hostess obviously is going to considerable trouble, especially if she has little or no help.  Guests should not disappoint her at the last minute without a believable excuse such as illness. Neither should they ask to bring another guest, with the possible exception of another single man for whom most hostesses have need.” The Emily Post Institute says, “It is not incorrect for someone to ask if s/he can bring a friend to a large party, although no one should do this when the invitation is for a small dinner party.”

However, The Institute also says, “You are obligated to invite spouses, fiances or fiancees, and significant others of your guests. If your friend has a long-standing relationship/is living with her ‘special person’ then he really needs to be invited. If not, and he is someone she is dating, it is not a requirement that he be included.”


Victoria: This was exactly my problem recently! TECHNICALLY if someone has a husband, fiance, or live in partner, they MUST be included on ALL invitations. BUT I think if you make it like a specific ladies only event, that’s fine and they don’t need to be invited.

Jaya: Really? Partners need to be invited even to small dinners and friends-only nights out? Wow, I’ve been an asshole.

Victoria: The rule was intended for dinner parties, but I imagine it extends further. But I think it’s fine to say “Ladies only, no SOs.”

Jaya: Definitely. Though I’m wary of saying “Ladies only” because what if a girlfriend of yours is dating another lady? These boundaries get tricky.

Victoria: Oooh yes. But maybe you have your “girls” and she has her “girls” and you make it work anyway- commenters weigh in!

Jaya:  I think there are two ways to look at this. 1. You have your group of friends, and you have a small apartment, and it’s rude to ask for +1s (though not rude to ask for honest clarification about invitations), and really that’s that.

Victoria:  These people are being so so rude by asking if they can bring someone for something like a dinner party. Although, I suppose at this age, people who are used to throwing BYOB parties have no concept of how expensive it is to throw a nice dinner party (not to mention all the planning and cooking!!!), so it’s really asking a lot to bring a date.

Jaya: Exactly, this isn’t like meeting up at a restaurant. It requires a lot of work on the host’s part. The LW can absolutely say that it will be a just-friends occasion. You can also say you have no space, but that also leaves it open that if someone declines, you will have space for someone else’s date, which doesn’t seem like what the LW wants to happen.

Victoria: Yes, I think for the LW, my advice would be to make it clear when issuing invitations that you are hosting a dinner for “the girls” or “our group” and if asked if someone can bring a plus one, just say, I’m sorry, it’s just going to be us this time and make a little joke about limited space.

Jaya: I do want to bring up something else though. I sense some hostility when the LW writes that her friends “no longer can function unattached to another person.” What a way to talk about your friends! Most of the time, wanting to bring an SO to an occasion is not a case of not being able to function alone, but wanting to introduce your SO, someone you care about, to your friends, other people you care about. You don’t have to all hang out together all the time, but these are all people in your life that you spend a lot of time with, and it’s nice to have them not be strangers.

Victoria: Yes,  lowering the hostility is good (though as a single person, I can understand the annoyance of a tag along SO) because they might end up becoming a good friend too, and your friends are probably coming from a good place. This does not mean that you have to invite anybody’s flavor of the week to your parties, though if you are inviting tons of other couples, I can see where someone would be hurt that you wouldn’t invite their significant other, no matter how insignificant you might deem them to be. And in this case, it sounds like the LW is mostly dealing with people in short term relationships. So she is pretty much in the clear in that regard.

Jaya: True, and there is a big difference between a “flavor of the week” and having been seriously dating someone for 4-5 months and wanting to introduce them to your close friends and not being able to go to any party without your significant other. The LW will just have to gauge what is the case.

So maybe her friends thought that this would be a lovely, convenient opportunity for everyone to get friendlier. Of course, for LW this is not the right time, because her apartment is small and she has a set guest list. But, in the spirit of what her friends are probably trying to achieve, I’d suggest she bring up another time where bringing SOs is proper. You can say “You know, I wanted to keep Easter dinner as a just us thing, but next week we should all go out for dinner because I’d love to get to know Charlie better” or “I really want to keep this Easter tradition of dinners with our great group of friends, but let’s plan another party soon for everyone.” Something like that.