The R.S.V.P Puzzle

rsvp

In the ancient world (or perhaps I should say, in the 1960s) everyone knew what R.S.V.P. meant. Today, not so much. Oh, people do think they know. But, you can be dead sure and dead wrong.

Consider today’s essay a short lesson in good taste and good manners. It might make people like you more.

An example will illustrate the point. I had the occasion to invite several people to a dinner for an organization with which I am involved. It is a not-for-profit corporation. These particular invitees had been helpful to the enterprise, but we didn’t know all of them well. The invitations requested them to R.S.V.P. It was clear that the dinner would be free to each one, a material way to thank them for their good-will and assistance.

Fourteen of these invitations were sent, but only three responses were received as the date approached. About two weeks before the event emails were sent with a second request to R.S.V.P. This brought additional answers to the question of whether we should expect their attendance or not.

Out of the blue came two emails from people who had not been invited, telling us that they would be coming. Whoa! How did this happen?

It turned out that these were associates of two of the real invitees. The newcomers were individuals whom we had never met and had not been involved with our not-for-profit corporation. They’d been given the invitations and encouraged to attend our event. Indeed, they were temporary employees in those organizations that had been helpful to us.

This put us in the awkward position of having to tell these people that they had not been invited (as they already knew); and, since we are a charity, to inform them that we had a limited capacity to provide complimentary dinners that would diminish the funds available for our philanthropic efforts.

The attempt to pass along our invitation reminded me of a practice that has occurred in wartime. During the Civil War, for example, you could get out of serving as a soldier if you could find someone willing to substitute for you. Still, this was hardly the Civil War, but a simple dinner invitation done in gratitude for the help provided to us. No bullets would be flying.

So what happened? Why did we receive responses from less than 2/3 of those to whom we wished to show some kindness and gratitude? And why did two of those people think it would be appropriate to pass along our invitation to others we did not know without asking us if this was permissible?

First, I don’t think anyone intentionally wanted to be rude. These are all good and decent folks. They do good work at their places of employment. They had no motive to be disrespectful and I’m sure had no intention of being thoughtless.

What other explanation might then account for the failure to respond? I suspect that R.S.V.P has somehow lost a bit of its meaning, the compulsory quality it used to carry. So what exactly does it mean to R.S.V.P. and what did it mean once upon a time?

Let’s start with the literal meaning. It is an abbreviation of a common French phrase whose translation is, “Please respond.”

According to Wikipedia:

The high society of England adopted French etiquette in the late 18th century, and the writings of Emily Post (the authority on etiquette) aim to offer a standard no more stringent than that tradition. Late 20th century editions (of her book), building on her 1920s beginning work, say… that “Anyone receiving an invitation with an RSVP on it is obliged to reply….” and some recent editions describe breaching this standard as “inexcusably rude.”

Emily Post advises (that) anyone receiving an invitation with an R.S.V.P. on it must reply promptly, and should reply within a day or two of receiving the invitation.

OK, so when you receive a written invitation to an event, it is expected that you will quickly inform your host whether or not you plan to attend. That puts some pressure on you: if you are coming you need to so inform the sender; equally, if you are not coming, your anticipated non-attendance must also be reported.

Why?

  1. First, because someone has thought of you favorably. He or she wishes the pleasure of your company. It may be your brilliance, your beauty, your fame, your charm, or something else, but the invitation says that you matter. By responding you acknowledge the kindness and compliment being extended to you and take a small step in reciprocating. In effect, you are saying, “Thank you for the invitation. You matter to me, too.”
  2. Invitations generally do not go to everyone. Space is often limited. If the host or hostess is to be able to plan to fill those spaces, he or she needs to know who will be there and who won’t.
  3. Social gatherings generally involve food and refreshments. The party planner must have a reasonable idea of how much to buy, how much to prepare, how much to budget. And, they must have enough advanced notice to do this.
  4. You were invited. Not your understudy, not your next-door-neighbor, not your business associate. Don’t assume that anyone else can substitute for you. That diminishes the importance of the thoughtfulness of the host or hostess in choosing you.

I suspect that many of us don’t think about these things too much; don’t think about the reasons our potential benefactor needs to hear from us, sooner rather than later or not at all. Some assume that they need to respond only with regrets at not being able to come. And, indeed, many invitations come with the message “Regrets only.”

I imagine that when some of us delay responding or don’t respond at all, we are thinking, “Oh, one person more or less isn’t going to matter that much;” or “I’ll get to it later.” No harm is intended by this attitude, yet there can be inconvenience or expense to the person extending the invitation. Remember, that person has to answer the question “Should I buy enough chicken for a dinner of 15 or 115?”

I also have witnessed, as have all of us over 40, that the civilized world has become a more casual place, one with fewer dress codes, social restrictions, and compulsory expectations. A world that is a bit friendlier and more at ease. But, sometimes that ease is purchased at the price of slackness, inconsideration, and unreliability. I can’t tell you what the perfect balance is, but I can tell you that if you are planning an event, you hope that people take your invitations seriously and make your life a little easier by informing you of their plans with respect to it.

Immanuel Kant, the great German philosopher, offered us a way to think about situations like this. He wrote about the idea of a “categorical imperative” when it comes to rules for moral behavior. He suggested that each of us should ask ourselves some version of the following question: Would I be content if the rules I use to govern my behavior (like viewing an R.S.V.P as optional) also apply to everyone else in the world? And, would the world be better or worse for it?

Really, it is pretty simple. The Golden Rule is almost always a great way to evaluate our conduct. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Even in response to dinner invitations.

“Being There” for Children and Others: On the Elusiveness of a Moral Life

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/bd/Freedom_From_Fear.jpg/500px-Freedom_From_Fear.jpg

Important life choices don’t always announce themselves.

No brass band stands at-the-ready, playing a fanfare to let you know that you are about to do something right or wrong.

That is, perhaps, why most of us believe we are “good people” regardless of the evidence. After Auschwitz, it’s pretty easy for us to rationalize or minimize our participation in anything less awful than that.

We rarely lose the best of ourselves in a moment of operatic drama, but in the thousands of little things that go unmarked and unnoticed in the course of every day.

Morality and decency are worn away an inch at a time; and gained in just the same painstaking way.

Let me tell you about a good man.

The father of a little girl.

He is divorced and cherishes every moment with his daughter. But, his work is demanding, sometimes requires travel, and he has significant payments to his ex-wife specified by his divorce settlement; so money must be made.

A business trip had been scheduled for some time, but two days before it he was told that his child would be one of the kids receiving some special attention at a grade school evening event; one of many such events that a parent is asked to attend, whether it be a band concert, an orchestra performance, a play, or a small honor of some kind.

A few are terrific and wonderful, but most are a matter of “being there,” despite what often amounts to the dreadful boredom of  50 squeaky violins and the butt-breaking, back-breaking pain of hard-wood gym risers as you listen and watch, already exhausted from your day at work.

This man does everything he can to support his little girl. And, mindful that his “ex” is more than a little self-involved, he tries to make up for what she cannot or does not know to give.

Still, money must be made.

As he sat alone in his hotel room on the trip’s first night, he realized — perhaps a bit late — that he was in the wrong place.

That his clients could wait.

That his daughter was more important.

That it mattered more to be with her than away from her.

He reorganized everything, cancelled meetings for the next two days, and changed his flight plans.

It cost him money and time.

A happy ending?

Not exactly.

The next day’s weather was bad, he spent hours in the airport, and he didn’t get back into his home town until just after his daughter’s event occurred.

It was frustrating, but he was able to take her out for an ice cream cone and a small celebration of her recognition when the assembly ended.

No proclamation came his way, certainly no acknowledgement from his divorced partner, and probably not even an indelible memory for his child, since our protagonist didn’t mention what he had to do in order to try to attend.

Of course, money does have to be made.

And, martyring yourself for your child’s welfare isn’t healthy either.

Life is like the work of a seamstress: the fabric we stitch of small moments, rarely acknowledged, soon forgotten, but leaving a pattern behind.

Things like whether we hold a door open for someone else, give the homeless person some change, use the word “we” instead of “I,” and the like.

Things like hand-writing a “thank you,” bending down to pick up someone’s fallen package, or giving up a seat on the subway to a senior citizen.

Things like being there for your children, your friends, and even those tourists who look confused.

In 2002, on a street corner in a moderate-sized German town, my wife, youngest daughter, and I were those people; who were aided by a man driving in his car who could see our perplexity, spontaneously parked the vehicle, and walked up and down a couple of blocks over a period of 20 minutes to help us locate a very hard-to-find address.

If it doesn’t cost you something it might be just a little too easy.

The “Three Stooges” used to say, “one for all, all for one, and every man for himself!”

Let’s hope not.

Today is another day. Lots of chances to live by the Golden Rule.

Twenty-four hours of opportunities to put your humanity and integrity over your convenience and advantage.

Will you see those chances? Will you rationalize those opportunities away? Will you be a better person at the end of the day than when the day begins?

No revelations, just the thousands of tiny events that make up a life.

Make a life worth living, not just a living.

The above poster was issued by the United States Government Printing Office during World War II. The image is called Freedom From Fear and originally appeared in the March 13, 1943 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. The painter is Normal Rockwell. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The oil painting is one of four that Rockwell based on the “four freedoms” mentioned by President Franklin Roosevelt in his January 6, 1941 State of the Union Address: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The posters that used Rockwell’s images were intended to remind the country of what it was fighting for in the war against the Axis powers. The same four freedoms were to become part of the charter for the United Nations.

What Should be the Last Word on the Question of Civility and Rudeness?

Memo to Kanye West, Serena Williams, and Representative Joe “You Lie” Wilson:

If you do not wish to be treated offensively, do not give offense.

In other words, live by the Golden Rule.