When Did It Become Okay to Not RSVP?

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 

Look, I know, contemporary manners are in a steep decline. I know it’s because of smartphones, or Twitter, or Millennials on their smartphones and Twitter.

The last time we had a party, we invited 30 people. Two people replied immediately, to decline (out of town). Of the 28 remaining, 13 RSVP’ed the day before to say they were coming, four to say they weren’t. Four texted the morning of: yes. One texted DURING the party, to say “Hey, it looks like I’m not going to make it,” like he was drilling his way out of prison and just…ran out of steam. The rest we never heard from at all; maybe they’re dead.

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This makes me wild. I prepare for parties: I clean my house and hide all the embarrassing prescriptions, which I can’t find again for days, and I need those meds to concentrate, and I…uh…what was I saying? Sorry, I was just pawing through the laundry hamper for my drugs. I scrape the soap crud off the soap dish. I wash the chocolate—it is chocolate, from a toddler’s sticky hands—off the shower curtain, because my husband says you can’t have something in a bathroom that looks like it’s smeared with chocolate.

But the worst, the worst, of course, is the ordering and preparing of food. I have had whole “party” hams left over, and legs of things wrapped in doilies, and stale boxes of frosted Christmas cookies. I have run out of food in the first hour of a party, because everyone woke up that morning and decided, yeah, they do want to come, sounds fun, count me in! I have resigned myself: This is how the modern world works. It’s a flash-mob style of entertaining.

A harm-reduction model for entertaining.

So what is a host or hostess to do? We still want to have parties. We still love our friends, even if they don’t know on a Tuesday what they’ll want to do on Saturday. (Confession: I don’t know on Tuesday what I’d like to do on Saturday; I postpone RSVP’ing too.) But we’d LIKE to know how many people are coming, or even if anyone is coming at all. The saddest turducken is the one you eat alone, for nine dinners in a row.

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So, I called Tamar Adler, a cook and hostess and the author of The Everlasting Meal, a “practical treatise on the value of cooking.” She knows how to throw a party, and she has the kind of relaxed and cheerful hostessing temperament that people like me—people who are sort of, I dunno, overly punitive about etiquette matters? —would do well to imitate.

I said to her, “Outline a harm-reduction model for me here, so that we can continue to socialize and throw parties and no one gets bent out of shape.”

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“Well,” she said, “before you do that—try to raise your RSVPs. I have high response and high attendance because I hype up my parties in my invitations. I make it sound like there are going to be bears on roller skates and a circus. Raise expectations. It’s the Twitter version of a party invitation—not in that it’s short, but in using whatever headline-creating mechanism people are using [in media] to get attention.” (I don’t know what she’s talking about here.) “Paint a picture. Put the menu on there, the color of the wine, that it will be fizzy wine. Engage the imagination—in an, okay, sometimes a deceptive way, but to a good end.”

Got it: fizzy wine, dancing girls. But what about food preparation? What about my leftover turducken?

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“Out with the Arctic char, in with the sausages,” she said. “The kind of parties I had in my twenties…you just can’t [serve fish] anymore. We had a dinner party recently that was supposed to be six people for soufflés and it expanded to 13 an hour before dinner. So I biked to the butcher shop for sausages. We still made the soufflés, and they were consumed rather quickly, so god bless the sausage. A lot of my menus now are based on things that can be frozen [if you have leftovers]. Braises. Or picnicky things. Charcuterie, cheese, and bread.”

So, note to self: keep sausages, ham, rolls, and other nibbles in the freezer. Serve things that can be frozen if not eaten—maybe I’ll have a pulled-pork party!—or thawed if more people show up than expected.

And finally, I asked Tamar, how does one manage the emotional fallout—the annoyance at the modern RSVP situation? She paused and then said gently, “If you can’t manage your emotional response to people RSVP’ing a hour before, you have bigger problems—life’s bumps are really going to throw you off kilter. If you’re emotionally wonderful about it, then maybe other people will be more wonderful too.”

photo: Flickr/dvs

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