(Not So) Clueless Hostess

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

I am hosting a surprise birthday dinner for my boyfriend (who is turning 26). We will be arriving approximately 10 to 15 minutes after the guests. The setting is downtown and chic but relatively casual. Should I provide the guests with pre-ordered appetizers for the short waiting time?

Thank you,

Clueless Hostess

Dear Clueless Hostess,

Any sensible Midwesterner would have trouble typing that salutation to someone so clearly not clueless in any way.

Yes, it would be lovely to have some nibbly bits for people to snack on while they wait for your arrival and the big reveal. While you’re at it, offer glasses of wine and/or beer and sparkling water, too. Or, have a tab open at the bar for them to get the party started.

Your age and the setting matter not, by the way. Good hosting is good hosting. It’s about making people feel comfortable and taken care of; anticipating their needs rather than waiting for them to surface. This Midwesterner’s great-aunt was legendarily, career-making good at hosting, and her rule of thumb was to get a drink in a guest’s hand as soon as they were greeted and their coat was taken. She would nestle calmly in her grave if she could read this, thinking “the kids are all right.”

Concerned in Connecticut

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,


I know these people.

The man and the woman are divorced. When the man comes to visit his 2 children ages 5 and 9 at the mother’s home and she has prepared a plate of food for each child, as they sit down to eat, the father always steals food off their plates and scoffs it down before they have had a chance to eat. He does this every time. I’m wondering what this must do psychologically to the children.

I feel it is domineering behavior and belittling to the kids and making them feel worthless. What do you think about this scenario?

Many thanks,
Concerned in Connecticut

Dear Concerned in Connecticut,

A sensible Midwesterner can read that you don’t like this man much, that’s for sure. Word choices like “steals” and “scoffs” (along with “worthless”) give you away. Does your dislike make you see otherwise fairly typical behavior (how much mas-and-cheese have most parents eaten off their children’s plates?) in a sinister light? Perhaps.

Reading your letter with that in mind, it’s tricky not to think this man is doing what parents have done for generations—nay eons!—with varying degrees of fall-out.

The thing about psychological effects of parenting choices is that they vary. Different children can experience the exact same action in wildly different ways. Take a father who steal the frosting off a child’s birthday cake. To some people that would become story that summarized their father’s overall selfishness or lack of regard; to others it would become a hilarious anecdote about their father’s love of sweets. They could both be totally correct, by the way. Context, personality, and perspective are everything in these things.

That the mother appears to be inviting her ex-husband into her home while she’s feeding the children despite this behavior, and you don’t mention that she objects, a sensible Midwesterner can’t help but think you are, perhaps, blowing things a tad out of proportion.

You don’t mention where you fit in this situation. Are you a grandparent of the children? A neighbor whose children play with the ones in your letter? It sort of matters and it sort of doesn’t. In the end, unless the children and/or their mother object, any sensible person would realize that this stretches the definition of “scenario,” with its implications of plot and drama, and is, in any case, none of their business.

Not Sure How to Network

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

I’m in the process of applying for a prestigious artist residency. I just found out that an acquaintance of mine (we’ve been in the same book group for just over a year, so we know each other through the mutual friend who put the group together; I have his email address, but have heretofore only used it for book group business) serves on the board for the institution that hosts the residency.

Would it be untoward to ask him what they look for in successful applicants?


Not Sure How to Network

Dear Not Sure,

Not at all! People who volunteer their time and other resources to serve on boards are, for the most part, devoted advocates of those organizations. And in general, people like to help other people, especially those they know, and especially in areas of their expertise.

It would be most inappropriate, as you seem to know, to ask for special treatment of your application, but it would be short-sighted of you not to 1) let him know you’re applying in case he’d like to bring special attention to your application, and 2) ask him for general advice in case he feels like giving it.

An email along the lines of, “Dear John, You mentioned that you’re on the board of the Great Residency Group. I’ve decided to apply for the fall term and was wondering if you have any advice as I put my application together. Any insight into what makes a successful applicant would be much appreciated.” The open and general nature of this request will allow your acquaintance to offer the exact amount of assistance he feels comfortable giving (including “follow the guidelines on the site,” which is code for “please don’t ask me about this anymore”). You should be able to gauge how specific any follow-up questions you may have should be (or if there should be any) based on his response.


Stuck in the Middle (of the Table)

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

I was at a dinner where my wife was seated to my left and a lady to my right at the end of the table. (There was no one to her left). I must admit I spent more time time talking with her than I probably should have. The gentleman sitting to the left of my wife did not spend much time talking to her, so she then became quite angry with me for leaving her alone.


Stuck in the Middle (of the Table)


Dear Stuck,

When in doubt, talk to your wife.

That’s just a sensible catch-all.

Without knowing the parties and specifics involved, it’s tricky to say whether your wife is being overly sensitive or you were being a thoughtless clod. The sensible guess would be somewhere in the middle of those two.

In this case, it would have been just as rude to ignore the stranger (perhaps a bit more so, since the picture you’ve drawn places the woman to your right having no one else she could talk to, at the section of the table known around my house as Siberia), but without nearly the same risk of an unpleasant drive home afterwards.

Had your wife written in, a sensible Midwesterner may have advised her to address the problem in the moment, by creating her own conversation with those next to or across from her, poking her husband and getting his attention if things were, indeed, that dire. Alas, she has not written.

Ideally, you would have picked up on your wife’s lack of company and had a three-way. Side-by-side seating can make this a challenge, but if the person seated in the center pushes back from the table a bit, it’s manageable, and the physical awkwardness is well worth it so you, your wife, and the woman to your right are all satisfied in your dinner conversation (what did you think?).

Sensible people of any regional background want everyone at the dinner (or party) to enjoy themselves; it’s simply decent and human. Making that desire a reality isn’t all that tricky, it simply means remembering that the very essence of social situations is thinking about those around you. (That is, perhaps, why some find social situations so terribly taxing; if you do it right, it’s exhausting!)

Any sensible person also hopes that you weren’t so animated or uncharacteristically charming in your conversation with the woman to your right that you were wittingly or unwittingly courting jealousy.

Introduction Question

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

If a husband and wife are out together at a dance club and either one runs into old friends, when is the appropriate time to introduce one another? I was taught right after the hello exchanges. Ex: hi! John Doe hi Jane doe – this is my wife / husband, Jane/ John, then carry on the conversation, so at this point if it’s just small talk or a conversation carries on, the other spouse can engage. Or does one let conversation carry on then introduce one another when he/she feels it’s more of a natural introduction?


Introduction Question

Dear Introduction Question,

It’s great to start the New Year with the basics!

If introductions are to be made, they are to be made immediately. As you say, right after the two acquaintances say hello.

While it’s rarely improper to introduce people*, it isn’t always necessary. It’s necessary if you’re going to be standing there talking for awhile and the un-introduced party is a spouse or significant other left standing there, smiling like an idiot without a way into the conversation taking place before their very eyes, but if it’s a quick exchange of pleasantries with an acquaintance at a dance club, you may choose to skip it altogether. But an old friend and a spouse? That introduction needs to happen.

“John! So great to see you! Do you know my husband, Ken Barbie? Ken, this is John Doe, who I know from college/with whom I worked at Widgets Co./who used to date Kitty.”

That’s how it’s done. Full names, complete with context of how you know them.

Let’s try in a slightly different situation:

“Hi Sarah! So good to see you! I don’t think you know my aunt, Nancy Abodo. Nancy, this is my friend Sarah Starshine from work.”

You get the pattern, as any sensible person would, I’m sure.

Spouses and other pairings may wish to develop a sign for when they don’t remember someone’s name. When this sensible midwesterner hasn’t introduced her husband to someone within one or two back-and-forths, he knows to extend his hand and introduce himself, the Sensible Midwesterner can then act like introducing them slipped my mind and we both learn/re-learn the third party’s name.

* It’s an old-fashioned truth: once two people are formally introduced they are socially obligated to acknowledge one another. Today, this seems of little matter; back when hierarchies were the raison d’être of social life, an unwanted acquaintance could be a burden the weight of which we 21st-century folks can, thankfully and truly, not begin to imagine.

Frustrated! (at Christmas)

Dear Sensible Midwesterner.

I host Christmas dinner each year, inviting my parents and their respective spouses, my sister and her family, and my husband’s family. I usually spend several weeks planning the menu, seating, decor, and activities, so that everyone has a good time and the celebration is seamless. Recently, however, my sister and step-mother have taken to arriving very early to “help” (which ends up being a hindrance), and have begun reorganizing my seating arrangements and even changing the order of events without consulting me. This year, my sister suggested she create a printed program so everyone can be aware of the order of things. I am very offended by these actions, since I have already put a great amount of effort in the planning. How can I prevent this intrusive behavior at the next Christmas dinner?


Dear Frustrated!

I’m so glad you wrote in. It’s best to think through the next holiday season now, when the highs and lows of how things went this year are fresh on everyone’s mind. Take notes, people, and resolve on those changes.(Fewer presents, more caroling, taller tree, hot buttered rum rather than egg nog, have everyone come at 3 instead of 4—whatever the change is that would have made this year better, write it down!)

As a fellow planner and can-be control freak, I sympathize with you, I really do. But as a sensible outsider who doesn’t know the personalities or specifics, what is clear to me is this: despite all your planning, everyone is not having a good time.

Planning family holiday celebrations is a lot of work, but it can also be a lot of fun. Preparing for the celebrations is part of the joy of the season for many of us. Your sister and step-mom want to be involved in how your family celebrates Christmas. The gracious, loving, and holiday-spirit thing to do is let them.

Next year, before you begin all your planning, send out an email or make a call to them, saying you’re beginning your preparations and would love to have them help. Leave that door open. I have no idea if they truly want to help plan things, or are just the type of people who want to do stuff the day of. If the former, great, now you have some help. If the latter, leave stuff for them to do. Why not let them set up the seating arrangement? Why not let your sister print up programs and have a say in what happens when? Are any of our plans so delicate and perfect that they can’t stand a bit of in-put?

Yes, you’re the host, and the menu, seating, and activities are all your prerogatives. No one here doubts that, but we might insist that it’s not terribly gracious of you to insist upon that quite so strongly. You’re hosting a family event, and that is a wee bit different, especially if you want things to be as “seamless” as possible.

It seems to me there is enough true malice and ill-intention in this world to be offended by without looking for it, especially so close to home. Maybe your sister and step-mom are trying to sabotage your plans, but I doubt it. Why not assume their early arrival is because they want to spend more time with you and/or want to contribute to the celebration? Why not see good will when at all possible, and look extra hard when it comes to family?

On that note, I assume you’re intentions are good. I assume all this planning you do really is so everyone will have a good time, not just so you can control everything (which may well be part of how it’s a good time for you). The thing is, large group celebrations are never perfect for everybody; they involve compromises of all sorts. Your compromise is going to need to be to warm-heartedly loosen your grip on Christmas dinner. Be a tad less perfect and planned, and allow other people their part. Let your step-mom arrange a game, ask your sister to set the table (and let her do it wrong if that’s how it goes), and be grateful that you have what sounds like an extended family of step-people and in-laws who all want to sit together and eat Christmas dinner at your house. That, Frustrated!, is no small thing.

How to Seat the Engaged

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

What is the correct way of seating at a formal dinner for a couple who are not married? They are engaged. Should they be seated together or separately?

Yours Truly,
Wondering How to Seat the Engaged

Dear Wondering How to Seat the Engaged,

People don’t tend to like the answer to this question. Well, they’ll like the answer to your specific question, but they don’t like that it’s the exception to the rule.

Engaged couples are, traditionally, seated together. Newlyweds, too. Old married folks, however, are, again traditionally, seated apart. The theory is that if you’ve been married awhile, you actually see a fair amount of one another and have plenty of opportunities to chat, so when you’re at a party you might enjoy talking to someone else. Not that you don’t enjoy your spouse, mind you, just that if you were going to talk to them all night you might as well have stayed home.

Personally, I’m a fan of this practice. I like the fresh audience for my most amusing anecdotes, if nothing else. And what’s more fun than the ride home exchanging highlights from separate conversations you were able to have?

Experience in voicing this point of etiquette and personal preference, however, tells me that people will argue quite vehemently against this practice. They want nothing more in the whole wide world than to spend even more time with their spouse. If everyone at the party wants to sit in pairs, that’s exactly what they should do. When they come to my house, though, I’m going to gently encourage them to sit four feet apart and see how things go.

Solo at Lunch

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

Should a staff member’s boyfriend be invited to a staff holiday lunch? Married team members are asking their spouses.


Solo at Lunch

Dear Solo at Lunch,

Who is and isn’t invited to a gathering is up to the host. Full stop. Polite hosts tend to do their inviting along some principle to avoid hurt feelings (all first cousins to the wedding, for example, not just the favorites).

As a modern person, I’m a big fan of the “plus-one” invitation, especially for work events parading as social occasions. This lets individuals decide who, if anyone, they bring along to events. To my mind, if any of the team members on staff get to bring someone, everyone should get to bring someone.

That said, I’m not the host. If you have any say in who’s getting invited (it sounds like you don’t), I say lobby for either everyone being allowed to bring someone or keeping it to just the team members (honestly, work events tend to be a bit of a drag for those who don’t work there, so keeping it just to co-workers is the kindest thing you can do for your loved ones).

If, as you signature suggests, you are an unmarried person who wants to bring your boyfriend but isn’t being allowed to, there isn’t much you can do. The should and shouldn’t of it all is moot. Show up with a sparkling clean attitude (leave any chips off your shoulders), be the life of the lunch, connect with your co-workers’ spouses, and get on the party planning committee for the next event.

To Email or Not to Email?

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

My husband and I are hosting a cocktail party for about 16. We are planning to do appetizers and cocktails, no dinner. Some people offered to bring something. My husband wants to send an email out to all saying: “Some of you offered to bring an app.  If you’re interested in bringing something, here’s what we have so far so we don’t duplicate.” I feel that would put people on the spot to bring something. Maybe they just wanted to bring a bottle of wine and not make anything.

Would love some advice on this. Thanks.

To Email or Not to Email?

Dear To Email or Not to Email,

First, I beg you to make it as crystal clear as possible when inviting people that this is a cocktail party, with defined hours that do not include dinner. I’ve never understood vaguely worded invitations, and the only thing worse than eating before what one thinks is a late drinks party only to find a full buffet laid out, is to arrive at what one thinks is a dinner party to find only nuts and nibbles for sustenance.

That was not your question, just my call out to anyone hosting a holiday gathering: let people know what kind of gathering it is! It’s easy! Cocktails and snacks from 5-7 pm. Dinner at 8. Dinner and board games at 6. Whatever it is, state it and give a time.

Should your husband send a mass email? Nope. Not unless he just wants to amend the invitation to make it a potluck. Do you want people bringing anything at all? A cocktail party menu can be a delicate balance, and perhaps you’d rather oversee the whole thing yourself, in which case simply tell people, “That’s so generous of you, but we have the whole menu planned, just bring your lovely selves to enjoy it!”

If you wouldn’t mind some random canapés at your soirée, respond with, “That’s so kind of you! We’d love to have you bring something. Just so you know, we’re serving [a couple key dishes or the overall theme of the menu goes here]. See you [day of the party]!” If they want more info or direction, they’ll ask for it.

Write these individually, not in some giant cc’ed mess. Copy-and-paste is a friend to us all, as long as we remember to change the names throughout.

FIL’s Chewing Is Driving Me Crazy

My husband and I live with my father-in-law (paying reduced rent; his gift to us as we save for a house) and we often eat dinner together. My husband is an occasional open-mouth chewer but kindly stops when I remind him how crazy it drives me and now mostly does it briefly to tease me (in fact he didn’t do it at all until we started living with his dad).

His father, on the other hand, always chews every bite with mouth agape, unless we have a guest over. For that reason I think he’s aware on some level how icky it is (and also because when I was first dating my now-husband and we had dinner with him sometimes, he did not do this), but doesn’t seem to care for our family dinners. It is a full-on wet, lip-smacking sound, and it is driving me bonkers! I do not want to ask my sweetie to say anything to his dad because he is not bothered by it, but I’m uncomfortable just asking straight out if he knows he does it or if he could please, please stop! I get so distracted that I cannot eat my own food and try to wolf it down before he starts.

I’m in a weird zone of not being guest enough to warrant good manners but not being familiar enough to say, Hey dude! Dinner is really delicious tonight, but would it be alright if you chewed with a closed mouth?

What are the better words? Is there another way? Should I ask my husband to mention it, which might cause my father-in-law less embarrassment (but I think my husband might buckle and admit that I’m the one with the problem, which would also be weird)? Should I leave it alone? He is doing us a very generous favor, having us in his home!

FIL Is Driving Me Crazy

Dear FIL Is Driving Me Crazy,

If you’re asking for a polite way to ask your father-in-law to chew with his mouth closed… I can’t help you. If you’re wondering how to ask the person who is generously letting you stay in his home to practice better table manners at his own table, again, I’m not your girl.

That you think he can tell the difference and bring better manners to bare in some circumstances would gnaw at a person; instead of thinking it’s a simple question of effort that he’s not making your behalf, may I suggest that you see it as a sign that he is comfortable about you? Sometimes reframing these things helps.

If act you must, however, I have a suggestion. It depends greatly on the personalities involved, so only you will be able to judge whether the outcome could conceivably be positive.

You say, in the most self-mocking manner possible, “I know I’m beyond fussy about certain things, but would it be possible for you two to chew with your mouths closed?”

See how you rope your husband in there? Keep the blame off one person? Let them team up? If you have a decent, friendly, sometimes joking relationship with your father-in-law, this may well work. You bring it up as a ridiculous request, they can mock you about it, and, hopefully, since they’re grown-ups with some self-respect, they may become more aware around you.

Only you know the players well enough to say if this might work. It is equally possible that your father-in-law will feel shamed, or straight-up embarrassed, and carry that slight around inside for the rest of his days, never feeling relaxed around you again—something, based on your description, it sounds like you now share. Only you can say whether the risk is worth it.