In planning family holiday dinners, figuring out the guest list used to be the easy part. For polite families, the answer to all the ticklish questions about whom to invite was always yes. A resigned yes, but yes all the same.
"Remember last year, when she drank too much and picked fights with everyone? Do we have to ask her?"
Yes. She's your aunt.
"Those children don't play fair and break all my things. I don't want them here."
Yes, but we have to have them just this one day -- they're your cousins.
"After he complained that he hates coming into this neighborhood, and he brought his own food because he doesn't like ours, and he wanted to know why we didn't have a newer car, you said you'd never let him in the house again. Do you mean to say you are actually going to invite him?"
Yes, because it doesn't matter that I can't stand him; he's still married to my sister.
As Miss Manners looks back, those troubles seem minor. Current difficulties are more basic. The debate has become who is entitled to be considered part of the family and who is not.
"Look, I went along when you said we had to include whoever is living with a member of the family, but they're not even living together. Frankly, I don't think he's that serious about her."
"He says that his wife won't come if his ex-wife does, and then he won't come, either. But if we don't invite his ex-wife, she won't let the children come."
"Grandma says she might hook up with one of them but she hasn't yet decided which, and she wants to bring them both."
"Those are not her children, they're his, and he doesn't have custody of them, so that doesn't make them related to us."
On the surface, all of this seems reasonable. If it is accepted that family membership overrides difficulties and dislikes, one should be able to ban the unwelcome who are unrelated.
Yet defining the family in these complicated times leads to etiquette disaster.
Disputing eligibility for attendance at holiday dinners is only one way to produce feuds and hurt feelings. Every year, Miss Manners receives reports about festive gatherings at which certain people who were invited have then been shooed away from picture-taking sessions or omitted from exchanges of presents.
At the same time, she sympathizes with those who are expected to be blind to distinctions between relatives and those who may just be passing through. That an intimate conversation might be conducted in front of strangers, and grandparent-size presents distributed to unknown children, does not make emotional sense.
Serious partnerships and step-relationships are recognized by society, which puts them in the category of like-them-or-not-they're-yours. But for those with families in flux, the compromise is inclusiveness tempered by the hospitality that ought to be offered to all guests.
They must be welcomed and drawn out, but not left out of the rituals. Exchanging presents should be postponed unless there is something for everyone there, although not necessarily full-family bounty. If there are photographic sessions, enough pictures should be taken so that no one feels excluded.
Those who resent having various attachments at family occasions should take comfort in knowing that this puts them in a new light for the relatives who bring them. In case of a family misfit, how gracious the family is may determine whether it is the actual relatives or the not-quite relatives who are more worth keeping.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: You know we spend the greater part of our time in our offices and this has given rise to holding various celebratory events at the office. I am adverse to any events at the office other than a welcome or retirement party and an employee picnic.
I just got an invitation to attend a wedding shower, during my lunch hour. The bride-to-be, an employee of a subcontractor who works for my company, and I have never maintained any friendship outside of the office. At most, we exchange hellos in the hallway and/or exchange documents, etc. I am at a loss here as to how to respond to this invitation. Do you have any ideas?
GENTLE READER: Decline, politely, on the grounds that you have work to do.
Miss Manners notices that people are constantly citing work as an excuse to skip social activities, even in situations where they have far more obligation than you have here, including the obligation of having already accepted the invitation. Only in the workplace is this considered a bizarre reason for skipping a party.