Etiquette Old and New

I was talking to my friend C. on Thanksgiving day, and somehow the subject of entertaining in general came up. I said to her that I’m very much an old-fashioned hostess. As I mentioned in my last post, my mother taught me that inviting people to my house meant I had to provide all the food, and not just on Thanksgiving. The very idea of a potluck can send her into an apoplectic fit. This attitude, like many of my mother’s, stuck with me.

When I started having parties in my early 20s, I provided all the food, soft drinks, beer and wine. Guests only had to bring their own liquor. Needless to say, I went through a huge adjustment when I moved down south. Suddenly, I was expected to provide not just food, but my own beer. Where was the southern hospitality I had heard so much about? It seemed rude to me, especially when the party was being thrown by someone I didn’t know well. Really? You’re inviting me to your house for the first time, and I have to feed myself and provide my own party buzz?

I tried to provide everything for the first few parties I threw here, but my friends insisted on helping. I finally just gave in to it, because it’s a silly fight. Who is crazy enough to turn down great food? It’s part of the ritual now for big parties. When I have a small dinner party, I still make all the food, although guests automatically bring wine.

The subject came up again this morning with my friend B. We decided that treating all parties as potlucks isn’t so much regional as it is generational. All of my friends are younger than I am. Some are Gen Xers. Others are young enough to be my kids. More than a couple think I’m a bit stringent with my need to be so organized. They’re all just more relaxed than I am about entertaining.

As I sit here writing this, I’m still contemplating exactly what the difference is. Is it generational? Is it just an age difference? My youngest friends are happy with partying like they’re still in college – no food, lots of alcohol. I’m acquainted with people in their 30s who still party that way. But when I was in my early 20s, there was a ton of food at my parties. B. said it was the same when she was younger – lots of food to help soak up the alcohol.

Besides the food issue, there’s been a general slackening of traditional etiquette. It’s harder to get people to commit these days. “I don’t know what I’ll be doing that day.” Well, if you say yes to my invitation, then you’ll know. Why is that hard? I’m not talking about someone who might have to work or whose mother might be coming to town, or someone who could be giving birth. I’m talking about someone who is obviously waiting for something better to come along. Geez, just make something up. There’s no reason to be so rude that your friends feel expendable.

I questioned above whether it was an age or a generational difference. By that I meant, is it age in and of itself, or is it that the generations behind B. and me were raised with less emphasis on etiquette? Or is it something else entirely?

I’m a fan of etiquette. I love its basic premise, which is to make everyone feel comfortable. Here’s the thing though. Among my youngest friends, no one thinks it’s rude to talk on the phone while everyone else is eating, show up an hour late for dinner or bring their dogs to each and every party they have. They all do it. So are they actually breaking any rules of etiquette?

The problems arise if they behave that way outside their own group. I’ve yet to see any of my youngest friends do anything so outrageous that I wouldn’t want them in my house. It’s my acquaintances in their 30s – the ones who still party like they’re 22 –I’ve had the most trouble with. Notice I don’t call them friends. They’ve been to precisely one of my parties, and treated my house, as B. said, “like it’s a bar.” They ignored me and the other guests, and smoked pot in the house without asking if it was OK. Yeah, they don’t get invited back.

So I guess it’s generational, but only sort of. It could be about age, but not entirely. I know people my own age and older – baby boomers – who will probably misbehave at their own funerals. I’ve had people crash my parties and not bother to find out whose party it is, and I’ve discovered people fighting in my bedroom (breaking two of my four cardinal party rules). But I’ve also had friends who were drunk off their asses and still insisted on helping with the clean up (closely monitored, of course, and no sharp objects). I’ve seen hosts who earn twice as much money as their guests make everyone chip in for pizza, and friends who are totally broke bring wonderful food to a dinner.

I figure it’s this way. Some people will always be boors, no matter how old they are or how much money they make. Others will grow up to be great company fit to meet the Queen. It’s probably all about how your mama raised you.

Maybe there’s a new etiquette. One whose only rule about forks is that you use one when you’re eating mashed potatoes. It’s about knowing your audience and understanding your limits. I kind of like that.

But, if I invite you to my house, please let me know if you’ll be there.