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The Etiquette Of Friendship

I got an email from a friend a few weeks back. It read something like this: “Dear Delia: I wanted to let you know that I invited X and her...

I got an email from a friend a few weeks back. It read something like this:

Dear Delia: I wanted to let you know that I invited X and her husband over to dinner. I feel terribly as I realize that I did this without ever having you guys over first and I’ve known you longer than X. So I wanted to tell you myself in case you heard it from X. I realize that this may sound silly, but I just felt like I needed to tell you. [Husband] and I would love to have you guys over as well…”

I loved this note on so many levels. First, I loved my friend for being so honest and forthright about such a small – but (potentially) awkward – situation. Second, she even gave me (unsolicited) permission to go ahead and blog about it (suggesting that we really are quite compatible as friends.)

Finally, I loved the way that she put her finger on one of those intangible, and yet instantly recognizable, aspects of adulthood: the etiquette of friendship.

When you’re a kid, you don’t worry too much about the spillover effects of your individual friendships. You’re best friends with Suzi one day; the next day, it’s Bonnie. Suzi gets jealous and may even hold it against you, but probably only for an hour or so because she’s now best friends with Gloria. Until, of course, you guys are best friends with each other again. And so on.

As you grow older, however, you come to realize not only most things happen within a wider social context, but that there are certain codes governing such interactions – and they are often unspoken.

Take, for example, the “return” playdate. If one of my kids gets invited to the house of a child that they don’t particularly like and/or they don’t enjoy themselves on a given playdate, they have no real comprehension of the idea that whether or not they had a good time, we’re going to need to have that child over to our house.

But I don’t like Sophia/Johnny/Fill In the Blank..,” they’ll utter in dismay. “Why do I have to have them over to my house?”

As grown-ups, however, we do feel this obligation. We know that it’s the *right* thing to do, whether or not we’ve enjoyed our dinner party/coffee/drink/whatever. It’s just the way things are.

In the case of my friend’s email, there’s certainly no law stating that just because you’ve known one friend longer than another (mutual) friend, or that the third party (in this case, me) introduced the two of you, you are obligated to socialize with these people in order of acquaintance.

And yet, somehow it feels as if you’ve violated a norm when you entertain out of order.

Other times, the underlying social code is murky and you’re caught off guard trying to interpret a situation. Have you ever invited someone to coffee and had them show up with a third party, unannounced? It’s really hard to interpret that, isn’t it? Do they not want to hang out with you…are they trying to be “efficient” with their coffees…or did they just genuinely think that the two of you would hit it off?

 I’m endlessly fascinated by these tacit codes of adulthood that weave our society together.

So, tell me. What have I missed? What social norms have you found yourself obeying/violating/noticing as you go through adult life? Which ones would you readily dispense with? Which ones are useful?

Image: dinner party picture by daralibrarian via flickr under a creative commons license

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  1. Cecilia May 16, 2011 at 6:00 pm #

    Interesting friendship post (as usual!), Delia. One thing I’ve “suffered” through is turning down invitations to big gatherings. I prefer intimate settings and these particular friends tended to be very extroverted “the more the merrier” party types. I never had much fun at their random get-togethers and I’d inevitably come up with one excuse or another and in time just drifted apart from them. Looking back I should have just been upfront about why I didn’t want to go, and tried to schedule one-on-one time instead.

    • delialloyd May 17, 2011 at 11:34 am #

      yes, @cecilia. I know exactly what you mean. we have some dear friends who, quite simply, love to party so whenever we used to see them there were always loads of other people present, which didn’t really allow for quality time. i knew that they liked us but just also liked lots of others too! so we started scheduling 1 on 1s. I don’t think you even need to tell them – just go ahead and do it. or say something like “x and I would really like to catch up with you….”

  2. ML May 16, 2011 at 6:31 pm #

    Hi Delia,

    You hit the nail on the head with this topic of friendships getting complicated! Four friends and I met when we worked at the same company. Of the 5 of us, 3 are still at that company (but perhaps in different departments now), and 2 have left the company. Let’s call us A,B,C, D and E. This is my social life:
    A & B have lunches without C,D, or E.
    A & B & E celebrate birthdays together without C or D.
    A & D have dinners without B, C or E.
    A & C & D & E have dinners and celebrate birthdays without B.
    A & D & F celebrate birthdays together (F being some other friend).
    C & E meet for breakfast sometimes without A, B or D.
    C & D & E go to dinners without A & B.
    I sometimes feel like it is a balancing act of who should be invited to what!
    Your friend is very smart to be up front with you on the topic of seeing your mutual friend without you being present! That way there are no hard feelings.

    • delialloyd May 17, 2011 at 11:32 am #

      LOVE THIS MAP! gosh it’s complicated, @ML…as your diagram suggests….ugggh. I think I’m just going to issue a blanket disclaimer to all mutual friends going forward…

      • ML May 17, 2011 at 4:38 pm #

        There’s even a math puzzle embedded in here that your kids might like to try solving:
        Which two people never attend the same event?

  3. Howard Baldwin May 16, 2011 at 8:04 pm #

    The question I have is different. We prefer small gatherings as well, but we also like to throw friends together at dinner parties of no more than three couples. What is the etiquette of inviting a couple over for dinner, setting a date, and then inviting another couple? There’s no way we’d get 6 people to agree on a free night, so it seems simpler to start with four. But do you ask the first couple of they’re okay with asking someone else first? (Presumably.) And then how do you ask the next couple? “We’re having some people over and we’d love for you to join us”? I don’t want them to feel second fiddle. Thoughts? Suggestions? Have I made more than one faux pas?

    • delialloyd May 17, 2011 at 11:31 am #

      yeah, I hear you, @howard. i’ve been watching how other people do this and it seems to me that all you’re required to do is ask one couple if they are free on X night. if you want to invite others, you go ahead and do so. you don’t need to tell them in advance or sequence it-just find a date and add on (silently) as you see fit. i only ever coordinate if it’s a gruop of mutual friends and we’re shooting to catch up or have a reunion etc. good question, though. i’ve wrestled with this myself.

  4. Patricia May 16, 2011 at 8:14 pm #

    I am in an awkward situation after 3 years of no paid work and not being retired and my partner and I spending all our savings in 2008 to keep his office going and pay our bills. I have been trying to invite someone to go walking with me at least once a week.

    I go to all the weddings and birthday parties and celebrations we are invited to – take a hostess gift or potluck dish, but am not able to reciprocate. My husband’s family never did their part socially and I have been teased over the years by their lack of etiquette. I feel badly.

    My one good friend does mediation work all over the world, is extremely wealthy and has just fallen in love.

    I love my two book groups and am hoping I will have enough funds to do my turn ( supper) in June and entertain the Danish family coming to visit too. I enjoy hearing all their traveling plans and I just love seeing their pictures – ipads are great tools for that.

    Reading this is makes me take note that my friendship calendar is nearly empty in 2011 – well we are going to my husband’s biking friend’s 65th birthday Memorial Day….

    All I can say is that I just keep working at it and I do not give up. I just offered to come over and weed with another friend to connect, but was told they have a gardening service now and a new beach house so are gone when not at work.

    I love my online friends – but they are not even showing up or commenting on posts right now…Oh I hope my new listening services job will work – Know anyone who needs listening too? or is in want of a good rant and response? :)

    I have to say this post did allow me to feel a bit hard on myself.

    • delialloyd May 17, 2011 at 11:29 am #

      @patricia-sorry to hear this. i love the idea of your “walks” because they are fun, healthy and don’t cost any money. people who are experiencing hard times financially should be exempted from all social obligations, IMHO. I really think your friends/book group etc will understand…

  5. Suburban Princess May 16, 2011 at 11:00 pm #

    I have to disagree that we have to have someone over in return. I found contentment in my life when I started simply doing only what I wanted to do. If I get together with someone new and realise I dont really like them, why should I spend time with them?

    We met a couple through our neighbours and invited them over for drinks one night…they accepted then the next day she asked me if our neighbours were coming…I said no and she cancelled saying she doesnt feel comfortable coming if the neighbours are going to be there. I thought that was very weird…like they can only socialize with another couple as long as they dont know that couple through someone else.

    • delialloyd May 17, 2011 at 11:27 am #

      @suburban princess-thx so much for weighing in on this. I am working hard on eliminating the “shoulds” from my life and you are quite right-why waste time (unless there is some social obligation – like a shared school /job etc -that requires you occasionally to show up, as it were. I think that’s really weird about your neighbor’s friends-how odd! just shows you how awkward all of this stuff can be…

  6. daryl boylan May 17, 2011 at 1:45 am #

    There is never an end to the occasional awkward social moment and one usually just does one’s maladroit best.

  7. @TheGirlPie May 17, 2011 at 4:47 am #

    Perfect timing! What a swell pal you have, and what a keen issue you’ve raised from her note.

    I’d love for your thoughts on when social and business intersect in potentially awkward situations.
    (As in: dear Guy intros me to his pal Dude whom he gigs with but hired on this occasion, but I’d followed Dude’s blog/tweets for a year on my own so we talked his business; Dude emails me a project for my (unpaid) input stemming from out chat… do I warn/alert/inform Guy before they gig tomorrow night and it comes up? As if he has ‘dibs’ on Dude? Will it seem like I was butting in on “them”? Ugh!)

    Not to burden you with solving this issue, but I suspect you (and your readers) have run into this friend/client/”frient?” issue — or will~!

    Thanks, and keep up the great works~

    ~GirlPie

    • delialloyd May 17, 2011 at 11:25 am #

      @thegirlpie-oh dear god, yes. been there. it’s quite analogous to the dinner party thing I was mentioning in this post and it makes it more complicated b/c you add the work dimension. i guess if dear guy is a good friend I would mention it, but in the sense of “wanted to let you know that dude and I are also collaborating…” in general, i find that honesty is the best policy…hope that helps!

  8. Pooky @poorparenting May 17, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

    This is such an interesting post! I love the note your friend sent you. It seems so silly and frivolous but you know if she hadn’t sent it to you… and you had heard about the meal you might just have started wondering…

    Of course, none of my friends invite me for dinner because I have the naughtiest two children in the world ;-)

  9. AnAdult October 22, 2012 at 10:42 pm #

    Alternatively, you can grow up and not worry about such menial things. It’s called being an adult.

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