≡ Menu

Surprise Guests Usurp Rightful Guests….Oh, Burn In EHell!

Several years ago, my husband’s aunt invited us to a dinner party in honor of her son, my husband’s cousin, who was on his first leave from the military after graduating from basic and secondary training. The party was small, and to be held in a meeting room at a well known local restaurant. My husband and I RSVP well in advance of the party, as did my parents-in-law and sister- in-law. As his cousin hadn’t called or visited us during his leave, we were excited to see him before he got his orders.

When we got to the party, it was being held in half of the restaurant’s meeting room. Another party filled the other half of the room, and long rectangular tables had been set up to the right and left; one for each party. As we got settled into our seats and began to order our drinks, a man and woman I’ve not seen before walk up to our party and greet my husband’s aunt, uncle, and cousin warmly. They tell them that they’re pleasantly surprised to see them, and my dear aunt-in-law explains that it’s going to be a problem fitting them in since they never RSVPed to the party. Indeed, it seems impossible to fit them in, since my husband and I have just taken the last seats at the table, and the only vacant space in the room is in the corner of the other party’s table.

My aunt-in-law knits her brow and says that there must be a way to fit everyone around the table. She calls the waitress over, but before she can arrive, my mother-in-law lets aunt know that it’s perfectly all right if my husband and I leave to make room for the ‘surprise’ guests. Now, this isn’t totally unexpected. My mother-in- law is the veritable queen of faux pas, and we long ago learned to politely stand up to her. But, this is aunt’s party, and she calls the waitress over to ask if two more people can be seated and served.

The waitress points out that there’s physically not enough room for more seats or tables on the right of the room, and that there’s not enough food. Auntie looks devastated. The waitress reluctantly says, ‘I can ask the other party if you can seat people with them, but you don’t want that… You won’t be able to talk to them!’
Mother-in-law pipes up, ‘Then seat my son and his wife with the other party! You’ll be able to catch up with your friends that way!’ To our shock, auntie replies with, ‘Oh, would you? Do you mind? Of course you don’t! I’ll buy you some food and have it sent over!’

My husband and I stand up to leave. Mistaking our shock and fury for compliance, the waitress grabs our coats and bag, runs over to the other party, and leads us there. Both of us sit down, stunned. We agree that we’ll leave as soon as the rest of the party stops staring at us, and before we can finish our sentences heaping plates of food are put down on our table.

We eat a small plate quickly, beet red and avoiding the confused and angry looks of the party of strangers we’re sitting side by side with. I mutter something about how humiliated I am, my husband nods and agrees that we need to leave as soon as we can. The stranger eating next to us nods, too.

We say goodbyes quickly. Once outside, we agree that we should stop accepting any invitations from family members that are openly rude to us. Six years later, we no longer see my husband’s family. Whenever we are tempted to attend a family event, we remind ourselves of the time we were sent to crash a stranger’s party.   0614-12

Oh, my!  This is, by far, the worst story I have read in a long time.  So many faux pas by so many people!

Those “old friends” who couldn’t have been bothered to rsvp but showed up any way deserve to slow roast in the deepest corners of Etiquette Hell.   They should have been squirming with discomfort over the chaos and inconvenience their selfishness inflicted on others.  But they probably didn’t because they are the epitome of self-centered and entitled.

And your aunt!  She had the right idea by expressing her surprise at her friends’ unexpected arrival and telling them that there were no more seats or food.  That alone should have had the surprise guests backing out the door in shame but no, they stand there expecting the hostess to create a miracle of more seats and food.   Aunt makes her first mistake by going to the waitstaff to see if more can be added instead of informing the surprise guests that, “I am sorry we cannot accommodate you for dinner.  We did not hear from you and therefore did not plan for you. Perhaps the next time son is in town we can visit with you.”

The drama that then ensues should have further had the surprise guests’s skin absolutely crawling in shame but no, they keep right on letting the hostess trip all over herself trying to fit them in.   And the waitress does the outrageous by putting the hosts of the other party in an awkward position by even asking if part of their room can be used for overflow from your aunt’s party.  God help your aunt if I had been that other hostess because the answer would have been, “No, I am sorry we cannot accommodate that request.  The lack of planning on their part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”

Your mother-in-law was just way over the top in assuming to take the hospitality lead by rearranging the guest seating.   Offer your own seat, Mom!

You and your husband did the best you could do under the circumstances but my husband and I would have done differently. I can easily envision my husband standing up to leave, smiling wanly and say, “We will take our leave right now in deference to the more honored guests.  Please give our regards to cousin.”    And then left with little fanfare.  To be honest,  accepting a seat on the other side of the room was to facilitate the many faux pas and continue the drama til the end.   It was already clear the surprised guests had absolutely no sense of shame in what they were doing so leaving to yield your seats to them fits with the expectation they and your family had.

One can almost hear Aunt-in-law and your mother-in-law lamenting the lack of family unity and togetherness and having not a clue why that is.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jane June 15, 2012, 8:39 am

    @Wim – I kind of wondered that as well. I’ve seen restaurants smaller tables on the end to accommodate large groups. I suppose in this case it just really wasn’t possible.

  • PM June 15, 2012, 9:41 am

    Well, isn’t it lovely that OP’s MIL sees them as chair-fillers until someonemore important shows up! Disposable relatives, the wave of the future! If MIL thought it was so all-fired important that Aunt be able to sit with her friends, why didn’t she and FIL go sit with strangers?

    OP, when she first said, “it would perfectly fine if my son and DIL leave to make room” did she mean leave the restaurant entirely? Was she dismissing you? This is so messed up and I’m glad you don’t see this side of the family. They’ve definitely shown you where you rank.

    The only experience I’ve had that comes anywhere close was a wedding reception, where a large number of unRSVPed guests, including 20 or so people from the groom’s family’s church, showed up. The mother of the groom went around to guests, particularly people from the bride’s side- which DH and I were- and asking them to “ease up” on the food and drink because there wasn’t going to be enough for everyone, and she was asking people to volunteer not to eat cake. DH and I took one look at each other, and having already given our good wishes to the happy couple, bolted for the nearest Olive Garden.

  • Elizabeth June 15, 2012, 10:14 am

    If the OP had her wits about her, she could have said: “Actually, we do mind – we’re already settled in here, but it looks like my MIL would like to move so you can have her spot!”

  • mechtilde June 15, 2012, 10:44 am

    I’m in the UK as well. Whilst the odd extra guest may show up, it is still extremely rude and presumptuous for them to do so.

    Mercifully it has only ever happened to me when organising children’s parties (and knowing that this happens I have a couple of extra loot bags- I’d feel very awkward turning away a child whi is, after all, blameless for their parents’ faux pas) but at a formal sit down meal where it often has to be paid for in advance it is simply unfair to expect hosts to arrange for extra costs in case someone who has not bothered to RSVP deigns to arrive. Even at a less formal party, or one with buffet food the hosts still need to know how much to prepare. Plus the hosts end up phoning round chasing up the people who haven’t bothered to let them know, which is a big waste of their time.

    It may be accidental bad manners if someone turns up unexpectedly, but if no-one ever says anything to them, how will they ever learn?

  • --Lia June 15, 2012, 10:48 am

    The unknown guests were definitely wrong. They had plenty of time to think about what they were doing and did it anyway.

    The aunt-in-law was taken by surprise and did what she did under duress. That doesn’t make her right, and she should be apologizing up and down, but people have done worse things under that sort of pressure. When a solution (let guests sit at another table) was presented to her, she took it without thinking through the full implications.

    The LW and her husband were also taken by surprise. They did the best they could under the circumstances. Maybe they should have stayed seated, and maybe they should have walked out, but I understand not wanting to make a scene in those circumstances.

    The hostess of the 2nd party was taken by surprise. She might have refused quietly to the waitress, or she might have welcomed the strangers warmly, but she too did the best she could under surprise circumstances. It’s hard to know what the right thing to do is when you’re faced with a situation you couldn’t possibly prepare for.

    The guests at the table whose party got crashed were similarly taken by surprise. They were in no position to complain to their hostess. I’d say their stares were warranted.

    This leaves the waitress and the mother-in-law. I’m on the fence about the waitress. I’d say that what she did was wrong, but I’d also guess that she did had no experience with that situation. I’m picturing someone young and stupid or maybe someone who thought it was all one happy party. From her perspective, it is. I’m going to put her in with the others who did the wrong thing because she was surprised and under pressure.

    Now: the mother-in-law. She’s the one who’s really wrong (along with the aforementioned non rsvping guests). She didn’t have to say anything. She wasn’t under pressure. It wasn’t any of her business. And the LW says she’s done this sort of thing before! She may have thought she was being kind. I wonder if she understands the implication of what she did. (I’m assuming she’s not mentally ill and hasn’t had a stroke that would render her unable to censor her own behavior.)

    The hostess at the other table gets a thank-you, some flowers, and an explanation of what a horribly awkward position they were put in. The aunt gets an icily worded no thanks to all future invitations with reference to the trouble they put her to last time. The mother-in-law gets a full blown noisy argument until they make their point, she ends in tears, and communication is left open. I’d also avoid socializing in large groups with the mother-in-law. (This is the best I can do with my mother. We see her in a small group. She’s ridiculed too many times in front of others for me to attend large gatherings with her.)

  • Wim June 15, 2012, 10:55 am

    @Katie from the UK: The problem with allowing for a few unexpected extra people when planning a dinner party in a restaurant is that for group bookings, many restaurants will want to know in advance how many guests to expect, and will charge you for that number of guests, even if fewer people turn up. So booking two or three extra seats “just in case” may well prove quite expensive.

    I recently had to book a dinner party for work to celebrate the end of a large project we had been working on, and 20 co-workers had indicated that they would attend. As we were quite a large group, I had to notify the restaurant of the final number of participants and of our choice of menu three days in advance. In the hours leading up to the dinner, no less than SEVEN co-workers cancelled due to their heavy workload for another project, but we ended up paying for 20 dinners all the same, as we had missed the 48-hour deadline for cancellations. That’s the way the restaurant business works, I’m afraid.

  • Mary June 15, 2012, 2:10 pm

    RSVP’s work the other way too. Out of the 230 people that responded to us that they would be coming to our wedding reception (sit down dinner), 32 did not show. We had to pay for every single one of those meals.

  • TylerBelle June 15, 2012, 3:17 pm

    @Raymee, wow, what happened to your family was as rough as in the submitted story. That was so wrong, especially how it was done with your parents. I’m all for seating charts and place cards for most dining events, but as you have shown, unfortunately it’s no guarantee they’ll work as they should.

  • Cat Whisperer June 15, 2012, 6:57 pm

    Reading the comments, a some people seem to be awarding Aunt-in-law a provisional “pass” on her actions because she was taken by surprise.

    At the same time, a lot of the people who have responded to this have indicated that it’s more common than not for many people to observe the conventions of an RSVP request.

    What this means to me: if you’re a host/hostess and you’re planning an event where you have requested guests to respond with acceptance or regrets, then you have no excuse for not being prepared for the event of both no-shows and surprise drop-ins, and knowing in advance how you want to deal with them. So Aunt-in-law doesn’t get a pass for being caught off guard. She should have been ready for the drop-ins and known in advance what she’d do if they happened.

    She had a range of options open to her, from icily informing the drop-ins that they could not be accomodated at all, to suggesting that they go eat somewhere else and come afterward to mingle with the other guests after everyone has finished eating, offering the guests her place at the table. (FWIW, if there is ever a situation where someone has to give up their place at an event in order to accomodate unexpected guests, it should be the host/hostess. )

    Also, since MIL was apparently in the habit of committing egregious breaches of etiquette, some provision should have been made to get her out of the action while Aunt-in-law, who was the hostess of the event, dealt with the situation. Seems to me that when MIL started sticking her oar in, someone in the family should have done their version of “Ma, can you come out with me so I can have a word with you in private RIGHT NOW? It’s really important!” and removed the old witch from the fray until Aunt-in-law has dealt with the situation on her own terms, whatever those terms are.

  • Angel June 15, 2012, 10:56 pm

    Wow, this situation was wrong on so many levels! No wonder you haven’t talked to your husband’s family in so long!!

    I have to say that the idea of the aunt-in-law standing up to the guests who didn’t RSVP, a little easier said than done. It would have been nice if she would have said, I’m sorry we can’t accomodate you, come back in a hour or two when everyone is done eating, but the reality is, sometimes you feel embarrassed and a little bit bad about saying something to the non responders, because you don’t want to make them feel badly. At the same time, that is exactly what perpetuates the bad behavior. So it’s a catch-22.

    It is a shame though that the OP’s MIL felt that she had the right to displace her son and DIL. I think that in that respect, the MIL was the rudest one of all. If she hadn’t said anything at all, the aunt might have come up with a more suitable solution on her own.

    I think that the restaurant also committed an epic fail by seating the OP and her husband at a table with strangers. I think at that point, shocked or not, I would be so fed up that I would just slip out when no one’s looking. After I asked for a to-go box for the food, that is. No insults, no fanfare. I would just quietly slip out a side entrance. I feel bad for that other party who had to sit next to strangers. I hope they complained to the management of the restaurant afterwards!

  • --Lia June 16, 2012, 5:31 am

    The caterer has every right to ask the hosts to pay for the meals of the no-shows, and the hosts have every right to ask for those meals to be boxed up to go. These can then be frozen, eaten later, or given to homeless people.

    • admin June 16, 2012, 7:21 am

      Lia, Many Health Departments do not allow caterers or catering facilities to give clients leftover foods. And from a legal liability issue (food poisoning) some caterers may have their own rules banning the release of their food into the hands of clients whose safe food handling may be questionable.

  • JeanFromBNA June 16, 2012, 11:39 am

    Holy crawly critters. The most egregious offense was in indicating that there was ANY hierarchy of guests besides the guest of honor.

    This happened to me one time when I was a much younger woman, and I just quietly left. I never regretted that.

  • Stacey Frith-Smith June 16, 2012, 1:39 pm

    Since RSVP’s can get lost in the mail (in fashion similar to invitations and notes of thanks), perhaps the hostess was even more to blame in that she failed to plan for the number of guests actually invited. The likelihood of having an “A” list and a “B” or even “C” list with a small event of this type is minimal, I would think. In such a case, the table and space should have been selected to accommodate the number of guests invited. Or the hostess should take a moment to follow up with a phone call since space was tight and such a large consideration for this event. Of course, I’m biased and have been teased for my concept of adequate provisions…in case a bus breaks down in front of our event and we need a bit extra…

  • Enna June 16, 2012, 1:57 pm

    I find this unbelieveable. The guests who didn’t RSVP are in the wrong so is MIL and Aunty in Law too. How rude for MIL to say what she did and Aunty to follow as well as the waitstaff. If I was the organiser of the other party I would have defiantly complained about that. The server should have put her foot down and said 1) it is rude to dump guests who have RSVP’d onto another party they aren’t invited too and 2) if there is no room there is no room. If I was the OP I would have stayed in my seat saying 1) I have RSVP’d and 2) it is rude to ask people who have already been seated to make room for other guests. If it was my family member who behaved like the MIL I would defiantly point out where he/she is wrong.

  • Emmy June 16, 2012, 2:16 pm

    Wow, that is horrible. I feel so bad for the OP and her husband. How uncomfortable for them to be usurped from their seats and shuttled to eat with a bunch of glaring strangers. I don’t blame the OP and her husband for going to sit at the other table (not everybody is gifted with the quickness of mind to have the perfect response when put in unexpected awkward situations), but I wonder how they managed to stay there when it was obvious how their presence at the other table was received. That must have been an excruciating experience. After the shock wore off, it would have been a good idea to tell the waitress to relocate them to a private table in a different room, or to slip out the door quietly.

    I feel the mother in law and the surprise guests were the most appalling in this story. I don’t know how somebody can show up to a party unexpected and allow somebody else to be banished from their rightful spot at the table. If somebody doesn’t RSVP and decides to show up, they should take responsibility and make sure nobody else is inconvenienced because of their lack of planning. The mother in law had no right to volunteer anybody’s seat except for her own.

    The restaurant was unprofessional for seating the extra guests at the table of another party. It would have been better for them to offer a private table for 2 in another part of the restaurant or simply tell Aunt in law that the extra guests can not be accommodated.

  • JL82 June 16, 2012, 6:48 pm

    How Ehell-worthy would it be for the “displaced” guests – OP – to say, with regard to leaving, “That won’t be possible”? Suppose it was literally true – the guest was using a transportation service for which pick-up time had already been scheduled in advance?

  • catmorland June 17, 2012, 1:26 am

    I’m guessing that the OP and husband were fairly young when this happened. Some parents seem to forget that their children have grown up and that they cannot therefore order them around to accommodate the ‘grown ups’ any longer. The MIL sounds just like one of those parents.
    The OP did right to stay away from these in laws since this episode. People like the Aunt and MIL have years of practice to reach this level of rudeness and they don’t rehabilitate too easily.

  • Ginger's Mom June 17, 2012, 2:11 am

    OP here!
    To answer questions: We were 22 and newly engaged, and in total shock. My family is pretty normal about parties. I’d never heard anything like this before or since. So we didn’t react quickly.

    When MIL suggested we leave, we didn’t budge, not until aunt-in-law,um, uninvited us. To the wondering commenters, aunt is in no way innocent. She’s been rude before and since. My first party at her home as a college student had DH, SIL and I sitting at a children’s table made up for the event (it was not a holiday, just a dinner party) with her adult stepson. So she invited us to her house and then made us go eat in the other room, even though we were all adults, every one of us. She’s a peach.

    If you all can picture a being formed entirely of pure toxicity, with the ability to create more like her, that would be my MIL and SILs. We finally cut off contact with all of them last year. We didn’t do it for us–we did it for our daughter. We couldn’t stand the thought of her being treated the way we were.
    I’ll write up my baby shower. Hope you all like drama!

  • Gilraen June 17, 2012, 7:14 am

    What a terrible situation. Only the OP and her husband and the other party are not to blame and yet the victim. I can imagine being shell shocked in a situation like this and not responding the way you’d want to. I wish I could say what I would do but given the fact that it is your MIL makes it even harder. So I really don’t know what I would say and do.

    I have been at the receiving end with people not RSVP ing in a work environment and having a surprise showing. Thankfully, as it was a buffet, the catering company was able to throw in an additional salad plate to accommodate two people. Both people did get an initial no to their late showing. I made so abundantly clear that they could come only because of the very nice catering people, that both went to see the caterers to thank them for their ability to accommodate their surprise visit.

  • Katie June 17, 2012, 4:18 pm

    Hi all

    I didn’t mean that in the UK we all just turn up at parties uninvited! But I would have thought that if you invite (say) 50 people for a casual ‘do’ (where it’s a hired room rather than a sit-down affair), you would allow space for *at least* the 50 you invite, regardless of whether they RSVP. To be honest, I would allow a few extra spaces on top of that, as people *do* have a habit of bringing along partners sometimes without warning.

  • The Elf June 18, 2012, 8:26 am

    Ginger’s Mom, I can’t blame you for cutting her off given that this was in no way an isolated incident. She sounds toxic.

    Regarding “extra” guests….. It’s pretty rare when I host an event that can’t be easily expanded to include extra or last minute guests. I don’t think I’ve ever had someone just show up (other than kids of invitees, which bothers me but is easily accomodated), but I have had people who I weren’t sure if they were coming or not and never gave a firm answer, or people who I have invited at the last minute. One time, literally! We were sitting down to eat (Thanksgiving) when two good friends dropped by. With a little furniture rearranging and quickly washing two plates, we were good to go. The few times I’ve hosted an event that had a seat count or limited space, and this was a hard number that could not in any way be expanded, I’ve assumed only the people invited and accepted would come. If someone else had arrived, I honestly wouldn’t know what to do. I wouldn’t do what this aunt did, but I think I would be at a loss. I’d probably end up appealing to the venue to see what they could do and would have followed their lead.

  • Hemi June 18, 2012, 1:15 pm

    O.M.G. I would just left the restaurant entirely. Under no circumstances would I have allowed myself to be a party crasher.
    I am surprised the other party did not refuse to have another party’s guests seated at their table.

  • waitresswonderwoman June 18, 2012, 5:15 pm

    Horrid!!! I think I feel the most sorry for the wait staff. I’ve been in the food service biz for over 15 years and, unfortunaly, for the most part, the lack of planning on some people’s part DOES constitute an emergency on my part (at least as far as making sure tipping guests and management are happy). This customer is always right, right? *eye roll*

  • Ginger's Mom June 18, 2012, 6:12 pm

    It’s true, the venue had packed WAY too many guests into the small room the party was in . I’ve never been to a party that was that packed before or since, and I’ve attended other parties at that restaurant. That was definitely the restaurant’s fault. There was no harm in my husband’s aunt asking if there was a way to seat two more.
    When they were notified that two people would have to be seated across the room, though, they should have had the surprise guests seated at the bar, and joined them after dinner, in my estimation of the situation. My husband and I would have been less affronted had we been sent to the bar and served there… Well, we at least would have been able to leave gracefully without the party staring at us, anyway.