During the past two weeks, I’ve been to three events for which more than half the people who RSVPed didn’t show up.
“They paid, so I guess I shouldn’t be upset,” said the hostess at a community event as she threw away enough food to feed the city firemen. We had tried to see if we could give it away, or donate it, but in the end we agreed that since it had been sitting out for more than five hours in hot and humid conditions, we better not take the risk. She stood for a long time staring at the food in the trash can before she repeated herself, “I guess I shouldn’t be upset, they paid.”
Two days later and two hours away, the wife of a political candidate threw away a similar amount of food after dozens of cocktail party guests opted to send their “something suddenly came up” text messages during the hour before the party started while the candidate and his wife were setting up final details.
“Well, it was a fundraiser, and they said they’d send checks…” said the hostess as she too stared into the trash can.
“You can save the food and eat it this week,” said one guest trying to make her feel better. “Except, it’s all cocktail food that’s been sitting out for hours,” said another guest. “Well, it is Father’s Day weekend,” chimed in a third guest. I just stared at the tiny crustinis topped with olive tapenade and now-soggy grilled cheese bites and debated whether to fume silently or tell the third guest to stick it.
The following week, a couple of guests and I helped another hostess quickly reconfigure her seating so the 20+ missing people weren’t so noticeable at her party. “My husband said I should have checked the calendar better,” she said wiping the sweat off her face when we finished. “I guess he heard that there’s a big World Cup soccer game tomorrow, so some people couldn’t come.”
Like the other two parties, we found ourselves staring at an uneasy-amount of food headed for the trash a few hours later. Her guests, who had made reservations, had not paid to attend.
I won’t mention the amount of money each hostess threw away along with that food, even though by my estimates as a professional meeting planner it was significant in each case.
I won’t mention the improbability that Father’s Day weekend or a World Cup soccer match the next day were the true reasons people didn’t attend after promising to do so. Nor the legitimacy of those events as reasons to alter your reservation.
Nor will I mention the emotional devastation each of these hostesses battled for the evening, weekend and week after. “I feel like I don’t have any friends,” said a couple of them.
Instead, I would like to focus on the history of reservations.
As with most things polite, it started with the French. Likely it started before King Louis the XIV, but let’s start there since he solidified the practice. You see, King Louis loved to throw parties showcasing his wealth and affluence. And he only wanted to move in the best circles—partly because he was vain and partly because a lot of people wanted to kill him. So he sent invitations.
No invitation (and by invitation, I mean your name had better be listed explicitly on the card), no party.
Now, imagine how embarrassing it would be to invite the best people—people who didn’t want to kill you—and a not have enough food for them. Louis did imagine things like that, so he asked his guests to confirm whether they would or would not attend.
These responses guaranteed your entrance to the feast or ball. If you hadn’t responded, you weren’t admitted; and likely you weren’t invited again…so you better even tell him if you weren’t coming. Of course, then (and probably now) few people ignored an invite from the king.
Imitating the king was a natural next step in the progression of the reservation, but the practicality of the invite and RSVP (which stands for repondez s’il vous plait, or please respond) spread the practice. Knowing how many and who would be attending helped the hostess prepare food, seating, conversation topics, and even entertainment.
Imagine not knowing that Aunt Mildred, the outspoken atheist feminist was planning to attend your Thanksgiving dinner where the new (and very traditional) parish priest was to be your guest of honor. Wouldn’t you like to know that? Or the fact that she’s bringing seven of her closest friends along, especially since your dining room table only seats eight.
Now imagine your best friend is approaching a milestone birthday, and you want to throw a party for her and your immediate group of friends. You check with her schedule and a few other close friends and arrive on a date about a month out, then send out the invite to 30 people. During the next two weeks various people respond either via email, text, or in conversations as you bump into them out and about. By their indication, 20 people are planning to attend.
For the next two weeks, you spend your evenings planning a menu, ordering a cake, figuring out how to implement cool ideas you found on Pinterest. The week of the event, you spend a small fortune in food and beverages, and use every free moment to deep clean your house. The day before the party, you prep the food and stay up late because you suddenly realize you forgot to bathe the dog, which also means you have to reclean your bathroom.
The day of the party, you get up early and prepare the rest of the food, set up the seating areas and tables, decorate, and decide to drop your dog at doggy daycare. Two hours before the party, you shower and get dressed, then pour yourself a cocktail.
Where is your phone? You’d better check in case someone needs last-minute directions. Except you find four messages that read something like this…
“Sorry, not going to make it. I have to finish this project for my boss.“
Wait, it’s Saturday around 5pm…
“Oh no! Forgot the party was today and am filthy from working in the garden. Sorry. Coffee next week?”
Um, the party doesn’t start for an hour still. How long does it take you to shower?
“Jane just told me the party was today. I don’t think my invitation said that. I thought it was next week. Sorry.”
Frantically check email…yup, sent to you and said today…
“Sudden headache. Hope you understand; have fun!”
The feeling of dread begins.
Quack quack quack. Another text.
“Jim and I are still on the green. We’ll have to take a rain check, it could be awhile.”
You check your planning notes. Okay, that makes 14 instead of 20. You adjust the table settings and seating. And pour yourself another drink.
The guest of honor arrives and you put on your celebration face. Let the party begin. During the next hour, nine friends show up. You deflect questions about the missing attendees with silly excuses. “Oh, you know how busy everyone is anymore…” You smile and laugh and keep offering more food and drink. Still, you end up with gobs of food at the end of the evening—afterall, you were planning for double the attendance.
How do you feel at the end of that evening?
Society may say this is becoming acceptable behavior, but it isn’t. And it should never be. Reservations are part of a deeper history known as etiquette—whose primary function is to set and ensure expectations are met. When expectations are not set or met, people are slighted. Slighted people become angry or hurt. Angry or hurt people tend to strike out at others. And so civilization collapses.
Will civilization collapse if you don’t follow through with your reservation? Yes. I believe it will. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but in 10 years, it will add up and our world will NOT be better for it.
So my advice to you—keep all the alcohol you purchased and didn’t consume; don’t check Facebook for at least a week; and remember, your reservation is your promise to attend—because the hostess is counting on you…literally.