Long years toiling in the etiquette field may have made Miss Manners unduly suspicious. When a question concerns the respective obligations of hosts and guests, she has taken to assuming that it was motivated by greed.
And indeed, there is nearly always a financial element, and the rulings that are sought would -- if she lost her mind and morals and granted them -- benefit the person who asked. She constantly hears from hosts who want to entertain without paying their bills, and guests who expect the hosts not only to entertain them without reciprocation, but also to entertain guests of their choosing without question.
When gender enters into the situation, it gets even uglier. Ladies and gentlemen are quick to label each other deadbeats or cheapskates, even as they are pursing romance. If they find it, they may declare a truce in order to turn this attention on their parents, planning a wedding extravaganza for which they expect the folks to pay, regardless of financial ability.
Whoops. There Miss Manners goes again, sounding off, just when she had begun to understand that greed need not be the sole motive in these mix-ups. Reasonable -- even desirable -- innovations in social forms, such as the cooperative party and non-courting, mixed friendships, have left genuine confusion about what it is to be a host or guest.
All right, here are some definitions. Miss Manners doesn't want to be left having to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
A host is someone who offers hospitality, which includes planning, orchestrating and paying the bills. So for all those folks who throw themselves on Miss Manners' mercy, hoping to enlist her sympathy by pleading that they are planning something really special, for themselves, their spouses or their parents, and expecting her to solve the detail that they can't afford to pay their guests' way -- too bad. They are going to have to settle for something they can afford.
It is fine to organize a cooperative party, to which everyone contributes and no one is host, but then everyone gets to chime in about the arrangements. Thus it should not favor one person's wishes (or family ties) over another's. It would only be for someone's birthday among a group of friends in the habit of celebrating one another's birthdays, or for an anniversary as a joint family project.
Harder to distinguish is the common situation where two or more people go out together. One of them has to have suggested it; does that person win the bill?
Miss Manners has been trying to get people to word their proposals more carefully, so as to create a distinction between "I'd like to invite you out to dinner" and "Would you like to meet someplace for dinner?" But it seems excessive to charge sociable people for misstating or mishearing something so small. And the consequences can be large -- finding you are paying for others you didn't invite, or pretending not to be hungry because a non-host chose a restaurant beyond your means.
Guests who are in doubt, or hosts who suspect they are, can say, "Shall we get separate checks?" thus solving the irksome problem of splitting a bill with those who are more given to indulgence than oneself. With any luck, the others will reply, "Don't be silly -- I invited you."
Between ladies and gentlemen, such an offer probably indicates a desire to turn friendship to courtship. But Miss Manners doesn't want to hear any ugly demands that he always pays because he is the man, or she should always pay because she makes more money. What is essential here, as in all host-guest relationships, is not the daily settling of accounts, but long-run reciprocation.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: What is the proper response to someone who says, "I love you" when you do not want to hear it?
I have a sister-in-law who continually says, "I love you." Love requires truth and trust, and she has often lied to me and I do not trust her. I try to avoid personal conversations entirely. She has fallen on hard times (again) and I am helping out by hiring her for odd jobs. This arrangement works well until she is leaving, when she zeroes in for a kiss and says, "I love you."
How can I say something so personal as "I'd rather you didn't say that, and don't kiss me, either," without inviting a personal conversation?
GENTLE READER: The proper response is "Thank you."
Miss Manners knows this answer will disappoint you, because you were hoping for an acceptable way of saying, "Yuck, get away from me."
But think about it. The words "I love you" are always followed by a pause in which the other person is supposed to say, "I love you, too." A merely polite acknowledgement is as devastating as you could wish.