Downsizing Bad Friends

Dear Helena,

Whenever we have barbecues and dinners, this couple never brings anything nor offers to help clean up. At times, they invite themselves over, knowing we are busy. Two years ago, they stayed here for a few days. I bought cold cuts for them to bring on their day trips and cooked dinner for two nights.

It’s starting to bother me that they never reciprocated—by offering to either help clean up, bring something over, or treat us to dinner. Last week, they called [to say they] want to come out this weekend. I told them we were busy. Today, my husband told me, again, that they want to come over on Saturday. It bothers me that they went through my husband even though they know we are busy.

If we should see them, shouldn’t they be treating us? Should I be suggesting they reciprocate in some form? —Mi Casa No Es Su Casa

Dear Mi Casa No Es Su Casa,

I’m amazed you’ve managed to put up with these people as long as you have. Dinner guests should never show up empty-handed, even if all they bring is a few sprigs of rosemary from their window box. And they ought to reciprocate, even if they just offer to buy beer and takeout curry.

But before you downsize these freeloaders, give them one last chance. Hint that they should entertain you for a change: “Hey, we feel bad we always drag you over to our place. Why don’t we come to yours instead?” They might agree, or volunteer to take you out. But if they demand that you produce another home-cooked meal, then they’re exploiting you and it’s time to get rid of them. At this point, you have two options:

Wall of Silence. Amelia Nicholas, a professional organizer in New York, explains, “Don’t call back. Take a couple of days to respond to their emails. Phase them out gradually.” It’s the same method you’d use to ditch someone “after the first or second date.” This might sound harsh, but it’s fine to do this is if the relationship wasn’t very intimate. If you put up a wall of silence, people are free to make up their own reasons why you stopped calling.

The Exit Interview. If you’re close, you should confront them face to face before crossing them off future guest lists. In this case, give the couple a chance to explain why they never have you over. Maybe they can’t entertain you because their house was foreclosed on, or their four-year-old still isn’t toilet-trained. But if they have no good excuse, see the previous option.

This advice might seem misanthropic, but really it’s the opposite. Getting rid of bad friends gives you time to shower attention on the people you really care about—and who make the effort to show they care about you, too. As Nicholas remarks: “My sister always says, ‘You’d weed a garden, why not your friends?’”

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.