The Accidental Host

by admin on January 31, 2012

I would love an opinion on this, please.

Every time my mother-in-law comes to town (about three times a year), the entire family (16 people) goes out to dinner at her favorite restaurant, and each “branch” pays for themselves. Well, her upcoming visit coincides with my child’s birthday. Since there will be many work- or school-related time constraints for everyone in the family, and dear MIL is only here for the one weekend, I suggested to everyone that we could also have the family celebration of my son’s birthday while at the restaurant. I believe my exact words were, “Since we’ll already be together at this restaurant on this night, perhaps we should go ahead and celebrate son’s birthday there, and I will bring cupcakes or something”. Everyone agreed that this was a great idea.

Do you think this in any way extended an invitation, indicating that my husband and I would be picking up the check? Believe me, if we had the money to do so, we would have intentionally extended such an invitation.
I’m fairly certain everyone will pay for themselves as always, I just don’t want to seem like ungracious “host”, or for there to be any surprises. Of course I could always just make sure to spell it out, but discussing money is so inappropriate. I suppose that would be better than looking ridiculous when the question of whether it will be separate checks comes about.   What do you think? 0109-12

I don’t think you have anything to be worried about.  If family members wer eto extrapolate this to celebrations of their own family members’ birthdays, they would realize that insisting on you picking up the entire tab means someday their day will come when they will be expected to also pick up the tab.   If someone misunderstands, blink innocently and say,  “We would love to pay for you all but that is a little out of our range at this time.  I brought some lovely cupcakes for us though!”

Btw, talking about money arrangements is not inherently evil.  If it were, most business transactions would be faux pas.  A lot of misunderstandings in relationships can be traced to no one wanting to hash out the exact monetary distributions and people then make assumptions and it goes downhill.

{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

Margo January 31, 2012 at 8:42 am

I agree that I wouldn’t, from what you say, see this as a general invitation to go out and eat at you expense, but if you are worried, speak to the other peole involved (It would be far worse to have some one turn up at the retauant thinking they are your guest, than for you to clarify any misunderstanding early on.

have you spoken to your hsuband? As you mentioned that it is your MIL visiting I presume that most of the other people involved are on his side of the family. is There anyone who is likely to have misunderstood or who might make an issue of it.

In my family I’d probably just pick up the phone to whichever cousin/siblings were involved that I’d thought, on reflection, that my comments might have been unclear and that I was simply proposing to add cupcakes as a birthday celebration to the meal, not intendeding to host it, and wanted to check that that was the way it came across.

I think it perhaps also depends on how your family normally celebrates children’s birthdays. If you would normally take a whole bunch of extended famiky our for a meal (even if it would normally be at a less expensive restaurant) then it’s more likely that people might misunderstand on this ocassion.

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Enna January 31, 2012 at 9:20 am

I think the way you said it OP no one would think it was a free meal that you would be paying for. Just do what Admin said: I do agree that talking about money isn’t rude it depends how it’s said and done that makes it normal conversation or rude.

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Kate January 31, 2012 at 9:20 am

I agree, especially with the last part. If more people were willing to openly address money issues before/when they arise, a lot of drama/awkwardness could be avoided. I know it might feel a little strange at first, but that’s nothing compared to the fallout that can ruin entire relationships!

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Jay January 31, 2012 at 9:22 am

No, if there’s a standard arrangement where the check is split, there’s no way that would be interpreted as you picking up a check for anything but the cupcakes.

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CaffeineKatie January 31, 2012 at 9:44 am

We just went through a similar situation. We were in my husband’s hometown for a funeral; his brother sent us a email, stating he had made arrangements for drinks and snacks at his home, followed by dinner at a restaurant. He made the reservation, he picked his favorite restaurant. All four siblings came, along with 2 wives and 1 adult child. Two of the siblings, inc. the brother making the arrangements, are rich, and two (inc. my husband) are fairly poor. The place was semi-expensive, and the rich siblingsand their families ordered multiple drinks, appetizers, and lobster entrees. We ordered water and vegetable stir fry. I had thought we were his guests; instead they split the bill 3 ways among the 2 rich brothers and 1 poor brother (the poor sister got a free ride). So we ended up payingmore than $100 for a little rice and some veggies while they had booze and lobster. Sorry this is so long winded, but my point is–TALK ABOUT IT UP FRONT!

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Green123 January 31, 2012 at 9:57 am

I’m not sure if this is something peculiar to the OP’s home country (the US?) that there is an assumption that the person doing the inviting pays the bill. Certainly here in the UK, unless it’s one person asking one other person out for dinner (i.e. a date), a person inviting a whole group of other people to join them for a meal in a restaurant to celebrate something like a birthday would not expect to be paying for anyone other than themselves. For example, among my friends, we will often go out to a restaurant to celebrate a birthday. The person who’s birthday it is will say ‘let’s go to The Pig and Flake for dinner on Saturday’ and everyone else will say ‘OK!’ and then everyone turns up and pays for their own meal.

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wyntershere January 31, 2012 at 10:00 am

I don’t think others will think this either.

In fact, after a recent conversation with many friends, I found out that generally speaking, people who extend invitations to restaurants NEVER believe they are to pick up the tab. Maybe that’s just in my area (midwest) and it’s not so anywhere else, but I was floored to hear them all say that. I have, in fact, been asked to TWO differen birthday parties in the past year at restaurants where I ended up paying for myself. When I kind of mumbled something about it to a person in the next seat, they were adamant that they never expected the host to pay for it, as if everyone knows you pay dutch when you go out to eat, for whatever occasion.

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Margaret January 31, 2012 at 10:34 am

My first thought was — are these the people who would normally attend your son’s birthday party? Are they now thinking that they are obliged to bring gifts when they normally might not have? I actually find it uncomfortable when a non gift giving event is changed to include a gift giving event, where I would normally not have attended the gift giving event. On the other hand, if this is the group that would have attended both events, then sure, it is sensible to combine. My mother is the queen of trying to make any event cover everything. Thanksgiving dinner and some extra relatives are coming? Then it is also the birthday party for everybody with an October birthday! Someone’s having a big family party in August? Then add Christmas to the name and that’s done for the year!

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Xtina January 31, 2012 at 11:04 am

I think it is understood that everyone will be paying their own way as usual, because that’s how the MIL’s party always works. There is no difference here except that you’re just adding one more celebrant to the meeting, and you have mentioned that you’ll be providing cupcakes (incidentally, that should be clue #2 to anyone since you have specifically said what you’ll be providing, and it ISN’T the whole tab, haha).

This would be a different situation if you had planned this on your own, issued invitations, and treated it like it was a private birthday party–then I could see where there would be an assumption that you were picking up the tab since you would be hosting it/handling arrangements, but the way the party is set up, there shouldn’t be any assumptions of that sort.

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rashea January 31, 2012 at 11:33 am

One solution would be to offer to pick up the tab for everyone’s desserts. That would cover the birthday party aspect, and make it clear what you weren’t covering. Try at the beginning, “everyone save room for dessert, our treat, to celebrate son’s birthday.”

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Lola January 31, 2012 at 11:45 am

I think you’re generally off the hook for everyone’s bill by the virtue of A. a set precedent where every family pays for itself, B. this not being exclusively your kid’s party but a combined family get-together/celebration, C. a general understading that birthday parties at restaurants are usually every-man-for-himself. But if you want to be completely clear, state you’ll be bringing cupcakes to commemorate your son’s birthday, which so wonderfully coincides with this *regular* family dinner.

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Cat Whisperer January 31, 2012 at 11:51 am

I’m with administrator on this one: if OP has any doubt at all that someone might think that she and her husband are going to pick up the tab, then reach out and clarify things so everyone is on the same page.

The flip side of this: if anyone in OP’s extended family has any uncertainty about whether she and her husband are offering to pay, they should reach out to OP and ask, directly.

Life would be a whole lot simpler if people felt comfortable asking in advance who is responsible for picking up the tab when there are get-togethers and there is doubt. It isn’t impolite to ask. And anyone who gets offended by a polite inquiry or a polite clarification of responsibility is probably looking for a reason to be offended, which they will find no matter how hard you try not to offend them.

When in doubt, politely clarify. Make life simpler.

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Stacey Frith-Smith January 31, 2012 at 12:51 pm

One concern I might have is whether the OP and family will be in a place that would allow her to bring food in and to serve it? Many establishments would disallow it (even for something so winsome as a child’s birthday party) because it would either pose some difficulty with regulations (depending on local laws) or detract from the establishment’s own sales of food, including dessert, coffee etc. Lastly, even if they allow the food, they may have a “plating” charge since small plates and implements would be needed in order to serve the cupcakes and labor to pass them. (Kind of like a small fee charged when you bring wine to an establishment for dinner). It sounds egregious on initial thought to consider this, but you can see from the restauranteur’s perspective that a charming family ritual, usually done at home, is slightly awkward when attached to a meal whose every other component is plated in the kitchen and served by the waitstaff. If you agreed to treat everyone to dessert from the menu, even ordering a selection to “share” based on your budget or cooperating with the restaurant to obtain a cake through them or through an affiliated vendor, then you would obviate the concern about your proposed addition to dinner insofar as serving a treat in honor of your child’s birthday from a vendor’s perspective. As to who pays for dinner, I agree that he or she who invites, hosts and pays. But in this case, you have added a small part to an existing event and should be fine with only paying for that small part, provided that your family understands and concurs based on how you have all handled this over the years.

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gramma dishes January 31, 2012 at 1:28 pm

Are you expecting the other family members to bring birthday gifts to your child? If not, I think you might also find a way to mention that this is just a cupcake celebration added to the initial purpose of the dinner and not a “BIRTHDAY party” (gift giving occasion) for your son.

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Gabriele January 31, 2012 at 1:35 pm

I would also make certain it’s ok with the restaurant that you bring cupcakes, and if so, what the cost would be. I know with cakes, since it involves additional plates, tableware, etc there is usually a charge and while cupcakes may be individual items, it would seem somewhat crude to have people eat them without a plate. Were you planning on bringing paper plates? Again, check with the restaurant…I’ve found the easiest way is to look on their website first, and if no info available there, call and ask what their policy is…it’s easier to ask about a ‘policy’ than to ask directly ‘what do you charge’…although in the end, it’s the same question…
Since your group regularly patronizes the place they may waive any extra costs as a gesture of good will…

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Sara January 31, 2012 at 1:37 pm

OP, is the restaurant ok with you bringing in your own cupcakes, thus taking away their opportunity to sell desserts?

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SHOEGAL January 31, 2012 at 1:49 pm

This post is making me wonder about all restaurant type invitations. I think elsewhere in the world it is clear everybody pays for themselves – in the US – not so clear. I was going to “include” 4 other couples for a Valentine’s Day dinner with my husband. Drinks and “appetizers” at my house and then dinner out. I didn’t have any intention of paying for everyone’s dinner – I just thought it would be fun to have other people along. How does one word that in such a way where you don’t appear anxious NOT to pay for everyone? Just wondering. In similiar gatherings we all paid for ourselves. As for splitting the bill when there are different levels of consuming – this is another problem entirely. I don’t think it is rude or out of line to say – I’m paying for what I owe thank you..

As for the OP – since the event is that the MIL is in town and this is the usual way of getting together – I don’t think anyone would assume you were footing the bill because you added cupcakes.

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Powers January 31, 2012 at 2:33 pm

OP: “discussing money is so inappropriate.”

No, discussing /income/ is inappropriate. Discussing money is /necessary/ when making dining arrangements.

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MellowedOne January 31, 2012 at 3:56 pm

Personally, I think it is inappropriate to take advantage of the situation. The family is meeting for the precise reason of taking MIL to her fave restaurant…this is clearly about and for her. It could be considered presumptious to ‘tack on’ another honoree.

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KD January 31, 2012 at 4:35 pm

Honestly, yes, I would see the billing aspect as changed. To me, the event’s gone from “family get-together we kind of plan together” to “birthday party for [child], to which we were invited”. Others may not feel that way (at a baby shower I was just at, at a restaurant, a guest was insulted that her tab was picked up by the host).

(Unrelated note: please make sure outside food is OK with management. This isn’t just for cost, but also food safety issues {possible allergen/insurance liability, rude guests wanting what you have and causing a scene when they can’t get it, etc.}. I wouldn’t say anything, but the latter scenario did actually happen at my birthday party a few years ago, and the patron came to us, demanding a free slice of ice cream cake because it “wasn’t fair” that we had some and he couldn’t order it. Management backed him up. Exit, stage left!)

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--Lia January 31, 2012 at 4:37 pm

Green123– In my part of the U.S. (and by “part” I mean my circle, not necessarily a geographical region), the person doing the inviting is considered the host and is responsible for paying. Exceptions might be long standing traditions as when everyone gets together at a neighborhood bar and one sets the date, or when who pays for what is mentioned explicitly in the invitation: “I’ll get the tickets if you can get dinner.” In the OP’s letter, the question comes up because there’s a slight change to a long standing tradition. In this case, it’s family so I see no trouble with checking with everyone. The birthday celebration part might be nothing more than singing Happy Birthday and congratulating the child.

We’ve talked before about the situation when one person spends 3x more than the others and yet expects to split the check evenly. I see nothing wrong with saying “oh, I couldn’t possibly pay a full share. I only ordered iced tea on purpose.” Failing that, I’m upfront about not accepting the so-called invitations in the future. It’s like being invited to give an expensive gift.

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MiseryLovesYou January 31, 2012 at 5:26 pm

I might be the only person thinking this, but in my experience it would be frowned upon to bring outside food into a restaurant by the people in the restaurant who make their living selling food. I agree with Rashea’s comment above that you could offer to pick up the tab for dessert, and then purchase desserts from the restaurant.

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Another Alice January 31, 2012 at 6:08 pm

I am very interested in this discussion, based on the comments and the original post.

I’m inclined to agree with the majority of commenters – I would assume it was the standard dinner, and think it’s obvious you were just tacking on the celebration in order to make it easier for everyone. No biggie.

However, I remember reading, I believe on this site, another discussion about whether or not if someone invites everyone to dinner, that they are obligated to pay for everyone. One commenter on this article suggested it was a US thing, but I think more that it may be a generational thing. I’m in the US, and spent years going to dinners for various family events, and never thought about how people were paying (I was a kid, so my parents paid for me, and as a kid, you’re rarely thinking of those things). As an adult, I’ve hosted my own birthday brunch, and it was never, ever assumed by my friends that I was paying – in fact, they surprised me by paying for MY share as a gift! However, when I mentioned this to my mom (“If you invite people out, do you have to pay for everyone?”), she was aghast that the “host” WOULDN’T pay. I always assumed it was split, especially considering our family is huge and a birthday/graduation dinner would involve at least 12 people attending for a full meal, plus drinks and appetizers.

I appreciate my mom more for those meals, certainly, but I just don’t see that sort of etiquette continuing, especially in this economy. I also find it more rude to assume anyone would pay for anyone, for anything. Ever. How is it any different than expecting a gift?

As a side note, hosting something at one’s house, I feel, is much different and the majority of the food and drinks should be provided by the host, with people contributing if they wish. Ha, maybe that’s why my friends and I would rather go out – to us, that’s the cheaper way to go! :-)

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mignon January 31, 2012 at 9:55 pm

I think Margaret expressed it well.

I doubt anyone will construe your suggestion as an offer to pick up the tab but now you’ve sort of foisted the burden of celebrating your son’s birthday on people who just wanted dinner with your MIL. Now they’ll have to exert themselves for gifts and wonder if a general family event — one that takes up the time and money of everyone involved — is going to be pre-empted into a party for junior.

Is there some reason you couldn’t have just shown up with the cupcakes, or whatever, and after the dinner plates were cleared just said ‘oh by the way, Tuesday is junior’s birthday so he’d like to treat you all to cupcakes!’ ? This way the whole night doesn’t revolve around junior, family can express good wishes and none are hit up unexpectedly for gifts.

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Cat Whisperer February 1, 2012 at 1:47 am

With regards to the assumptions people make about who picks up the tab: I was taught that if you are issuing an invitation to a restaurant as the host, you are supposed to pick up the tab for everyone.

I’m 55, but my 19-year-old daughter and her friends of around the same age do not follow this rule. We got into a discussion about this last month when our daughter, who is away at college 1,500 miles from home, told us that she was asking some of her friends in the dorm to go out for dinnerat a Thai restaurant they all liked with her to celebrate. Her father and I were adamant that she should pick up the tab for the people who attended; she was equally adamant that no, that wasn’t how it worked, she’d been to several similar birthday celebrations at restaurants, and they split the bill.

We got into somewhat heated discussion about this, because her father and I were both brought up with the rule that “whoever issues the invitation, pays.” Daughter, who is in many ways much more cosmopolitan in her upbringing than husband and I were, basicallly told us that this rule did not apply to impromptu, largely spontaneous get-togethers of friends who are accustomed to eating together and splitting the bill, that we were attempting to impose formal rules for hosting on what she and her friends regarded as an informal, non-hosted event.

What’s a parent to do? What we ended up doing was telling her that we had to trust that we had brought her up to understand that courtesy at its most basic is about making people feel comfortable and valued, and that we would trust her to make the best judgement of the situation and what’s appropriate. We also put in one final plea, which was that if anyone assumed that she was picking up the tab for them, not to put them on the spot: take the check and pay it with a smile.

It’s my observation that people in my daughter’s generation, who have grown up accustomed to using texting, instant messaging, Facebook, and other means of communication, are much less rigid than people in my generation are about things like rules for hosting get-togethers and who is responsible for what. It seems like they build a concensus through discussion in a very casual way and things are much more fluid and spontaneous than they are among us older people. The young people of my daughter’s acquaintance are all very bright, very sophisticated (especially compared to what I was like at that age), and (except where parents are concerned) concerned about doing the right thing while allowing space for individuality. They go to the heart of the matter, which is to be inclusive and to not cause discomfort for anyone, but they work things out more flexibly than people my age do.

Me, in my dotage, having seen every which way it’s possible for things to get misconstrued and for good intentions to end up with mind-bogglingly bad misunderstandings, I fall back on trying to be very clear when I issue an invitation: if I intend to pick up the tab, I ask the person if they will go for lunch or dinner or brunch or whatever AS MY GUEST. Those three words remove all doubt: my expectation is to pick up the tab. And when I’m issued an invitation and I’m not sure if the intention is to split the bill, I’ll ask very politely “are we splitting the tab or is this hosted?”

I’d sure be interested if Administrator would do a couple of discussions about the evolution of invitation-issuing and social planning among the younger set, because it seems to me based on observation of my daughter and her friends that they don’t play by quite the same rules that people of my generation do. Certainly customs evolve and change as the things people have available to work with change, and things are for sure a whole lot different now than they were 30 years ago or even just 10 years ago in terms of communication tools.

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Anonymous February 1, 2012 at 3:07 am

Money issues aside, how old is the son? As for the matter of “tacking on another honouree may be presumptuous,” how does the son feel about having his birthday celebration merely “tacked on” to the end of a regular family dinner, at MIL’s favourite restaurant instead of his own? Or, what if he doesn’t even want to have a family dinner for his birthday (since those seem to happen fairly often anyway), and he’d rather have a party with his friends? I’m not saying the OP is rude, it’s just that, it seems like this is one of those times when “let’s combine two events to make it easier” is just opening up the door for a whole other set of complications. Also, I agree with the gift issue–if it’s a family dinner (and people are paying for themselves), then gifts wouldn’t be expected, but if it’s Son’s birthday party (OP and her husband pay), then that might conceivably be considered a gift-giving event. So, there’ll be some people who think it’s a family dinner, and others who think it’s a birthday party, some people will bring gifts, others won’t, some people will bring money, and others won’t, and it’ll just be a mess of conflicting expectations, unless the OP and her husband either separate the events, or communicate the plan REALLY well in advance.

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Library Diva February 1, 2012 at 9:40 am

“you’ve sort of foisted the burden of celebrating your son’s birthday on people who just wanted dinner with your MIL. Now they’ll have to exert themselves for gifts and wonder if a general family event — one that takes up the time and money of everyone involved — is going to be pre-empted into a party for junior.”

What an awful way to view a family gathering that coincides with a child’s birthday. If any of OP’s family shares this view, I’d think they’d be glad that the gathering would just be cupcakes at a restaurant where they were going anyway, instead of a full-afternoon gathering where presents were expected. I don’t really see how the invitation can be construed as fishing for gifts, either. And if even this small ‘burden’ of eating a cupcake at the end of dinner proves too much ‘exertion’ for OP’s family, they can always choose not to attend.

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Kim February 1, 2012 at 11:07 am

If you are issuing INVITATIONS to any kind of social get-together, then you are the host and the invitees are your guests. Yes, that means that it’s up to you to pay for the hospitality you’re offering them. And yes, it’s reasonable for guests to expect that somebody who claims to be issuing invitations to an event is assuming the host’s responsibility of paying the guests’ expenses at that event.

Of course, you can suggest, organize, propose or initiate some other kind of social get-together where all the participants pay their own way, and that’s perfectly fine. But you can’t call such a suggestion, organization, proposal or initiation an “invitation”, nor can you describe yourself as the “host/hostess” of that get-together.

I think a lot of the confusion about this issue stems from the fact that lots of people are trying to hang on to the words “inviting” and “invitation” because they sound warmly hospitable (and also because, as in CaffeineKatie’s example, they allow the “inviter” to retain the traditional host’s privilege of deciding what, where and when the event will be) while at the same time trying to avoid the financial responsibilities that such warmly hospitable words imply. “Hey, what say we all go out to a restaurant?” is not an invitation and doesn’t suggest that the person who’s asking the question is offering to host a dinner. “I’d like to invite you to have dinner with me at Restaurant X at 7 on Thursday”, on the other hand, is and does.

In the OP’s case, I agree with Admin that everybody will probably figure out that this is one of their typical shared family dinners rather than a special event hosted by the birthday boy’s parents. Still, if there’s any possibility of confusion, LW might tactfully drop a hint emphasizing that the typical shared family dinner is still the chief object: something like “Gee, I know we don’t get to see MIL very often and maybe I shouldn’t try to piggyback Junior’s birthday celebration onto our regular family dinner, do you think I should just forget about it and throw a little celebration for Junior some other time?”

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SHOEGAL February 1, 2012 at 12:01 pm

I was thinking – why not, after the dinner is over at the restaurant, invite everyone back to your home for birthday cupcakes for dessert?

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Enna February 1, 2012 at 4:02 pm

@ Caffine Kate: that’s bad. Next time I hope you and your husband say something. If there is a big difference in what is ordred then speaking up and saying this isn’t fair is fine.

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Wink-n-Smile February 2, 2012 at 9:52 am

Shoegal, I think that is the simplest and most elegant solution.

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Steph February 2, 2012 at 10:41 am

OP, I think you need to talk to MIL more than anybody else. Family might go to her first with any questions (Are we supposed to bring a gift? Is she paying?) and so she can help smooth out any awkwardness. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with your suggestion and I don’t think anyone else will either.

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Enna February 2, 2012 at 11:04 am

@ Shoegal, I agree with Wink-n-Smile that is a great idea. One that I want to use myself if I’m in a simlliar situation.

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Wink-n-Smile February 2, 2012 at 11:44 am

@ Caffine Kate – simply say, “No, we only ordered X. We’re not paying for Y.”

If (and only if) they make a fuss, remind them that they are well aware of your financial situation, and repeat – we ordered X, and that is what we will pay for. Then sympathize with them, BROADLY, on their financial downturn. Don’t ask for details. Specifically don’t ask for details. “Oh, brother, dear, I’m SO SORRY about your financial losses. I wont’ ask for details, because I’m sure it’s an unpleasant subject that you don’t want to discuss. Still, as someone who is financially strapped, myself, I really do sympathize with your current situation. I’m so sorry you find yourself unable to pay for your own dinner. Perhaps the manager will allow you to wash dishes to cover the cost. Shall I call him over and ask him, for you?”

They won’t try to impose on you that way, again.

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erica September 10, 2012 at 3:48 pm

I am in the camp that states tacking on a birthday dinner to a visit with MIL is a bit..um tacky.
And then you don’t want to foot the bill? Nope.

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