DEAR MISS MANNERS: Though our family was not wealthy, I inherited Mom’s china, silver, crystal and linens, and I love using them. They remind me of her, and it’s fun to set the table and cook a big meal.
Our street has many couples of our age and era, and dinners seemed like a good way to get to know our new neighbors. We’ve had many neighbors over for dinners, but none have reciprocated, except one who included us in a big neighborhood potluck.
Do people no longer use their dining rooms? Is their mothers’ china only for Thanksgiving and Christmas? Are sit-down dinners out of fashion, and backyard potlucks with football on TV all that’s acceptable?
Did we offend? We have also asked couples over for casual drinks and snacks in the garden. They come, but don’t invite us in return.
We have no children, and I’m beginning to wonder if our family china will end up in a landfill, no longer valued by any generation. Mom must be turning in her grave.
GENTLE READER: Yes, the cruel truth is that the private dinner party, that most delightful of social forms, is moribund.
So is the entire ancient peacekeeping practice of breaking bread together. Nightly family dinners, Sunday dinners with the older generation, dinner parties, informal suppers with friends -- all are in decline.
Miss Manners is asking you, and others who appreciate the form, to preserve it, like medieval monks copying manuscripts. And that means not only inviting your unresponsive neighbors, but younger generations, when their children and grandchildren are visiting.
It is true that there are still holiday dinners with extended family and friends, although perhaps the rarity contributes to the contentiousness of which many complain. People who are not used to convivial gatherings may see these as opportunities to unleash saved-up criticisms and complaints, not to mention contempt for others’ political opinions.
Other social event forms are lavish weddings, self-generated birthday parties, cooperative group meetings, and professionally organized fundraisers. These have added to the confusion at the few remaining private meals by making it seem mandatory for the guests to bring presents and food.
And people increasingly entertain or meet in restaurants, creating the problem of which is which: Is the person initiating it a host, who should pay the bill? Or suggesting a non-host agreement to dine together, in which case everyone should have a say about the choice of restaurant? Even then, a joint bill creates the problem of whether it is to be split evenly or divided by what individuals ordered. (Hint: Ask for separate checks. It is less annoying to the server than having to wait while everyone haggles.)
There are valid reasons that have made private home entertaining more difficult. Not only are most adults likely to be in the workforce, curtailing the time to prepare such an event, but work now makes more demands -- for longer hours, after-hours messaging and pseudo-socializing. Children, too, are likely to have scheduled after-school activities.
Then there is the menu problem. There can be serious reasons -- medical, religious, ethical -- for avoiding certain foods. That’s in addition to plain old food fussers, whom these reasons seem to have emboldened.
Miss Manners urges you to carry on despite these difficulties. Those who have never experienced the conviviality of small gatherings where people can exchange ideas in a spirit of good humor -- whether or not they have the china and silver -- don’t know what they are missing.