DEAR MISS MANNERS: I live next door to a small grocery that I visit several times a week. All of the cashiers recognize me. A few of them ask questions or make insights that feel intrusive, along the lines of, “You’ve really had a sweet tooth lately,” or “Looks like you were having a party in your back yard the other day, did you have fun?”
I don’t want to be unkind, but sometimes it feels like these strangers know more about my day-to-day life than my close friends and family do. Is there a polite way to shut down these conversations?
GENTLE READER: Of course these people, and many others with whom you deal, can easily deduce information about your life. That is unavoidable. What you find objectionable is the failure to recognize that this is, in a sense, privileged information, not an invitation to a discussion.
But their intrusion is understandable in a society holding the belief that friendliness — not just politeness — is universally desirable, regardless of whether it is attached to actual friendship. There is also widespread failure to understand privacy and its requirement that some things should pass unremarked: It would be intrusive for even a friend to remark on how many sweets you eat or whether you had a party to which the friend was not invited.
Certainly you do not want to be so unkind and rude as to tell your grocers to mind their own business. Instead of taking up their conversation openers, you need only smile and then parry with one of your own. Miss Manners trusts that they will not consider “The tomatoes look wonderful — are they from around here?” an intrusive question.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: I hosted a Super Bowl party and have been upset ever since.
My husband and I spent days planning, shopping, prepping and making a buffet dinner for about 20 people. Our teenage daughter set a lovely table using our good china and crystal. Most of our guests respected our request to “Please, just show up.”
However, a few came in with dishes in ugly grocery store containers, or Tupperware, or plates they would not be too upset to leave behind — and set all that on the buffet table. None of that stuff fit with our menu and most remained uneaten, but I had to wait till everybody left to throw it all away, therefore not being able to serve dessert the way I had planned.
I am BEGGING you to reiterate to your readers that, when invited to a hosted dinner party, they MUST NOT bring supplies.
How should I put my foot down politely here? I enjoy this annual party a lot, and people love coming. However, I am at the point that I don’t want to do it anymore.
GENTLE READER: Goodness knows that Miss Manners has been trying for years to teach people not to try to cater their friends’ parties unless specifically told that these will be cooperative meals. If guests feel that they must bring something, it should be chocolates or flowers, not part of the meal itself.
Would it work to warn them that no contribution cancels the need to reciprocate hospitality? Probably not. But you may grab their dishes away from them and say, “Thank you, we’ll look forward to enjoying this tomorrow. As I told you, today’s dinner is all prepared.”