Thursday, September 13, 2007

Host and Guest - do NOT try to guess who's coming to dinner

Dear Mr. Steichen:

Lately I have encountered an awkward question in the workplace. When being invited by colleagues or clients to events they sometimes say, "feel free to bring your boyfriend...or girlfriend." I assume they are trying to be inclusive and polite. They don't know me so they don't want to make assumptions. Here's the thing - I'm straight and single. Of course, I need to reply to their invitation by saying whether or not I'm bringing someone. Normally I would say "thanks, but I'll be coming on my own." Is it more or less awkward to address the implicit question about sexual orientation? I tried recently saying "thanks, I'll be coming on my own, but if you know any eligible bachelors, feel free to let me know!" I didn't say this because I'm trying to turn work functions into a dating scene, rather because it seemed more graceful than saying "thanks, I'm coming on my own and I'm not a lesbian." (Followed by the unsaid "not that there's anything wrong with that...") Can you please let me know the best way to answer, and also advise readers that even as they are trying to be inclusive, that such invitations are a bit uncomfortably phrased?

Your discomfort over the phrasing of this invitation stems from the fact that it was indeed not asked appropriately. An invitation should never be used as an opportunity to inquire about the personal life of the invitee, even more so in a professional environment. This invitation has the apparent virtue of being “inclusive,” (and this instinct is to be commended), but in fact the only sure-fire way to be politically correct is by minding your own business: “I hope you can join us for dinner Saturday. And please feel free to bring a guest.” Period. Such restraint may come off as rude in our confessional culture, but doing otherwise is far more perilous.

Congratulations to you for finding a gracious way to respond to this invitation in a way that was comfortable for you, and also did not land you in an icky “but some of my best friends are lesbians” trap. That fact that you were able to think creatively on your feet, however, does not make the question any more appropriate. If anything, it placed you in the impolite situation of seeming to turn a professional engagement into an episode of The Bachelorette, which was clearly not your intention. Furthermore, for all they know, you could be recently separated, divorced, or widowed…conditions that are increasingly available to people of all sexual orientations. Your sensitive host would doubtless be horrified to make such a faux pas. Lesson learned: unless you can ask in an appropriately informed manner, don’t get too personal with invitations.

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