Surprise Guest: Mom

Dear Helena,

I recently invited eight close friends for a casual dinner party. We have been friends for years, but hadn’t seen each other for months.

We have a lot of fun when we get together. Half of the group (the nondriving half) will do a few shots. We are all comfortable around each other and it is a loud party, lots of fun, lots of “letting one’s hair down” as far as language, stories, and behavior. None of this is ever offensive to anyone present but would be slightly inappropriate in public.

But, this time, 15 minutes before guests were due to arrive, “Joe” called and asked if we minded if he brought along his mother! (None of us had even met her; she was visiting from out of town.) My husband flat out told him that he was worried she would be a little uncomfortable with the setting.

Joe arrived without her and even joked about it, but I was upset about the whole thing. I felt that, even though it wasn’t right for him to ask at the very last minute, it was also wrong of my husband to say no in so many words. How should we have handled this? —Chagrined Hostess

Dear Chagrined Hostess,

When a guest asks if you’ll accommodate someone else, you should say yes. I’m assuming a guest will only make this request if he’s desperate. In other words, he’s unexpectedly saddled with someone who can’t be left alone: a friend in crisis or a visiting relative.

Squeezing in an extra may stretch your menu and disrupt your seating plan. But when you cook dinner for people, there’s always enough food for at least one more portion, even if you have to rip a tuna steak in two. If you don’t have enough chairs, you can improvise one, no matter if it is an upturned recycling crate. You might have to pack guests more tightly around the table, but that can create a more intimate atmosphere and encourage conversation.

Of course, you must consider the other guests as well as the one who wants to bring an extra. In this case, your husband probably refused out of a sense of duty to your friends, fearing that Joe’s mom would put a damper on the revelry by droning on about her bunions.

But don’t be too quick to decide the new addition won’t fit in. If the person is the recent ex of one of your other guests, then, yes, the evening will probably be awkward. But if you don’t know the person, he or she may surprise you. Stacy Homes, a marketing manager in Seattle∗, was nervous about how her 58-year-old mother might react to her unconventional circle, which includes a polyamorous couple. But when Homes took her mom to a birthday party, her mom got sloshed and had a great time: “My friend said, ‘Hey, I think your mom needs to go,’ and I looked down the hall to see her swaying on a chair wearing a lopsided wig.”

If the unexpected guest is an older person, your dinner party may offer him or her more than just a good time. Cathryn Jakobson Ramin, author of Carved in Sand: When Attention Fails and Memory Fades in Midlife, says that social interaction and mental stimulation (along with physical exercise) are essential in protecting the brain from deterioration as you age. Having a cup of tea with relatives you already know isn’t enough: “If you just sit around the living room and look at each other, it’s not necessarily all that mentally stimulating for anybody.”

Of course, some people simply do not mingle well with others. But since your friend knows his mother and you don’t, let him be the judge. Tell him his mom is welcome but that you expect the evening to be rowdy. He may decide to leave her at home, but he won’t resent you for excluding her. Or he might say, “Great, because my mom can drink anyone under the table.”

If not, she might help one of your other guests get a job, or a secondhand couch. She very well could have a summer house on Cape Cod that’s available right when you want to take a vacation. At the very least, she might love to do dishes.

∗Her name and identifying details have been changed.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.