This is a four-part, essay-story about etiquette, integrity, and enmeshment. To understand this story, please note that the character "Carleton" is an employee of the author, and also the son of the author's friend "Jill."
On Saturday March 6th 2021, I had a two hour Zoom meeting. I had silenced my cell phone. I realized later in the day that I had not confirmed a time for meeting my friend Jill for a walk.
I gave Jill a call, but the phone was busy. I tried two more times over a 30 minute period. Still busy.
I knew from previous experience, that Jill was on the phone with her son Dylan. I knew it would be a long call and she would not be joining me for the walk. I was totally okay with that, after all, we had not confirmed a time.
I have learned that the adult children of my friends are far more important to them than I am. The adult children are, after all, blood relatives. They are in the same tribe. Two hundred thousand years of evolution has developed this bond. The priority will always be the adult children. I will always be second place. I have come to accept this.
Therefore I was not surprised at all that the walk was forgotten or abandoned or otherwise discounted.
I would have appreciated a text message with some info like "I'm tied up with my son, could we meet at 5 pm?"
I would like to point out however that I knew exactly what happened and why it happened. This was not a problem for me. I have come to accept that this is how things are.
In October of 2018, I was in my office standing next to one of my employees, Carleton, waiting for a third person to get off the phone and join us in a meeting. I casually asked Carleton what his plans were for Thanksgiving. I knew that he usually spent the day with his father and his father’s family. Carleton looked me in the eye and in a very matter-of-fact voice, told me that he and his brother were going to have lunch with his father, the day after Thanksgiving at a specific time at a specific restaurant!
I said "that sounds pleasant." As we continued to wait, in silence, I inquired if he had a plan for Thanksgiving Day? Suddenly Carleton got very uncomfortable. He looked at his feet. He shifted his position to take a step back. Then he said very quietly “my brother and I are going on a hike”. I said “oh should be a great day for a hike.” Then the third person got off the phone, joined us and we started our meeting.
I did not give this very brief discussion with Carleton any additional thought, except to note that I had inadvertently made him extremely uncomfortable. I felt that he was concealing something from me, but, his private life is his business; I did not think about it again.
A few days later, I walked over to Carleton's cubicle, to ask him a question. However he was not there. I happened to notice, though, a document on his desk that said “Thanksgiving Day” and listed his mother Jill, his brother, Dylan, and himself. It was some kind of hiking itinerary for the entire day.
I found this rather puzzling, because Jill had accepted my invitation to Thanksgiving dinner. Jill had not informed me of any change in her plans.
I wondered what was going on.
Although there might have been many explanations, the most logical one seemed to be that Jill and Carleton and Dylan were planning on spending Thanksgiving day together.
So why was I not informed of this change of plans? I thought perhaps there was a discussion about hiking, but no definite settled plan. So perhaps Jill still planned to attend Thanksgiving dinner.
I found myself in an uncomfortable situation. I did not want to ask Jill what was going on as I did not want to put my employee Carleton in an awkward position with his mother.
I trusted that within the next two weeks Jill would clarify for me that she was not coming, or she was coming, or she would be late, or she would explain in some way exactly what was going on.
From that day in October up until Thanksgiving Day, Jill and I went on a few walks and the topic did not come up.
I found the situation rather stressful, because if Jill did not plan to attend, there were others I could invite. But, Jill had accepted the invitation, so I had to trust that she would keep her word.
About two weeks before Thanksgiving, I discussed the situation with a friend who does not know (and would never know) any of the parties involved. I explained my concerns. The friend said, “well why don't you invite the two young men along with Jill to Thanksgiving dinner. You know, the more the merrier.” I thought that might be a good solution to the problem, so I sent a quick note to Jill and said “oh by the way if Carleton and Dylan are visiting you for Thanksgiving, they are welcome at my house for dinner.” Jill declined the invitation on their behalf. But she did not decline for herself, even though, I felt I had opened the door to make that easy.
then it was Thanksgiving Day. My husband and I put a lot of energy
and effort into the Thanksgiving dinner, as we always do. About ten
minutes before the dinner began I received a text message from Jill
stating that she wasn't feeling well and would not be attending. Of course, I did not believe the message; the truth of the matter was that Jill was off hiking with her two sons. Obviously I had been hoping that Jill would still attend, but I still found myself
tremendously disappointed. I ignored the text, because I was
busy hosting the dinner.
Why was I disappointed?
Once again I faced the reality that the adult children of my friends are far more important to them than I am. They are blood relatives, in the same tribe, and there’s two hundred thousand years of evolution forging this bond. So, the adult children wanted to go on a hike and that was that. The priority is the adult children. Although this does not explain the lack of courtesy in advising me of the change in plans.
The day after Thanksgiving, I received a text message from Jill asking if I had received her text the previous day, about not showing up on Thanksgiving Day due to illness. I replied that yes I had received it. She responded “Oh I'm so relieved”.
I found myself thinking “why are you relieved?” Did she believe that we were holding up Thanksgiving dinner, waiting for her to arrive, and that if we had not received her text, then we would have been waiting hours for her to show up while the dinner got cold?
Somehow in her mind, texting regrets on the day of a major social occasion is sufficient to excuse one's behavior. I wonder where this belief comes from?
For the next several months I was very angry about the whole situation. But there was not a lot I could do in order not to jeopardize my relationship with my employee.
In the Spring of 2019, my husband and I had our annual spring dinner called Oy!ster. I was writing and revising a play for the event and I was very excited about having the guests participate in the play. This was probably the only time when I could have a staged reading of my play. I had even told a well-known local actor and his playwright wife, that I was going to have a staged reading about my play. They loved the concept of Pharoah’s crisis in leadership; they were really supportive and enthusiastic. I ordered masks for the plagues and had stage direction and other props. It was going to be splendid! And I was sure everyone would have a great time.
I had made some mistakes on the invitation -- left some people out and screwed up some other email addresses. Jill, was accidentally left off the invitation. Jill took great umbrage at this, and gave me a piece of her mind. I was shocked. One does not normally assume they are entitled to an invitation. Jill went through the list of people who were invited and commented on their relative merit for receiving an invitation. My guest list was none of her business!
Over the next week, Jill contacted me more than once to let me know that it was her son Dylan's birthday on the day of Oy!ster. She had apparently made plans with him. Well, I thought, that was too bad, and I hoped they had a nice birthday party.
But for some reason Jill felt the event should be reorganized around her requirements. Jill said she could delay Dylan's birthday party, come to our event, and then leave early. But this would not work at all, because we were going to start the play after everyone arrived, and it would not work to have someone leave in the middle or near the end of the play. It would be disruptive. It would spoil the play. The play was really important to me.
For a while, I thought Jill might be on drugs. Who would be so arrogant as to think that someone else would or should plan a party around their requirements? You receive an invitation -- promptly accept (and show up) or decline. You do not badger the hostess; the person who kindly extended the invitation.
But Jill doubled down; she wanted to negotiate the terms and conditions of the invitation. She wanted it to be a party that she and I “co-hosted”; I was not interested.
But then Jill doubled down again. She said okay; she would come for the beginning of the party and stay till the end.
But now, I take you back to two hundred thousand years of evolution. the place where this essay started. We know that parents will always give the highest priority to their adult children, and that their friends will always be in second place.
Was Jill really going to abide by the rules of etiquette and the conditions of the party? No I don't think so. Look at what has happened consistently with her adult children. Look at what lengths she has gone to in order to accommodate the needs of her adult children, even conspiring with them to lie to their employer -- all to accommodate their wishes.
The other extremely mysterious thing about this turn of events was why was Jill so committed and so adamant and so determined to attend Oy!ster and so committed and so adamant and so determined not to attend Thanksgiving?
So no. No way a kid’s birthday party was going to interfere with my play. Regardless of what she said, Jill was going to interrupt the play to get home to her son’s birthday party. It is two hundred thousand years of evolution; you cannot fight it.
So where do we go from here? This is a story about etiquette, integrity, and enmeshment.
The first edition of Emily Post's Etiquette was published in 1922. It is widely accepted as the official guideline for social behavior in America. There is really no excuse for accepting an invitation and not advising the hostess that your plans have changed. You deprive the hostess of the opportunity to select another guest for her event. And, there is no excuse at all for conspiring to deceive. In the final analysis, etiquette is about a sensitive awareness of the needs of others—sincerity and good intentions are primary.
Then there is the problem of enmeshment. Jill is not respecting boundaries regarding social occasions. If Jill is not the hostess of a party, then she has no say whatsoever about the guest list or activities. Jill is free to have her own party, her own way. A guest may either accept or decline an invitation, and that is all. Recently I have learned that Jill has recounted experiences unique to me as if they were her own. It seems that Jill has become enmeshed, not really understanding where the boundaries are.
I need to separate from Jill. The Greek philosopher Epictetus wrote:
"...keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best."
For me, that is not Jill.