Rites of My People

Been a while! I’m hoping to get back to a regular schedule now, though. (Also, if you have any subjects you’d like me to write about, please let me know via email or comments–I draw a blank, some weeks.) And as I’m going on vacation this weekend, and a friend said I should, I’m going to describe the Dance of WASP Non-Obligation: one I learned mostly from my dad’s people (and my mom, so either this also extends to Boston Irish Catholics  or Mom acclimated really well over the years) but which was also familiar to a friend from an older generation in the actual Midwest.

See, those of my ancestry on one side of the family, perhaps in internal psychological compensation for hundreds of years of actually invading people’s land and taking their stuff on a national basis, have established the following guidelines:

1) Being a Bother *might* be the worst possible thing you can do, rivaled only by Making a Scene. You know how serial killers’ neighbors go on TV and say that Mr. Human Pancreas Casserole “kept to himself” and “never bothered anyone”? That’s kind of the ideal, except for the cannibalism–in part because that kind of thing, as the song says, is almost sure to cause a scene.
2) You, as a host, are obligated to offer refreshments.
3) You, as a guest, must assume that any offer made is only out of obligation, and actually fulfilling it would involve a level of effort, on the host’s part, somewhere between “raising a barn” and “donating a kidney.”
4) You, as a host, must assume that your guests are assuming this, and secretly are yearning in their very soul after whatever you’re offering.

This leads to the following exchange, where A is the host and B is the guest.

A: “Would you like a cup of tea?”

B: “Oh, no thank you. I’m good.”
A: “Are you sure? I was going to make one for myself…”
B: “…well, if you’re making one anyhow…”

Accepting the first offer is too close to asking, and One Never Asks For Refreshments. (One may, in desperate circumstances, ask for money or blood, but never refreshments. One of my first memories is asking one of Dad’s colleagues for gumdrops out of a bowl on her desk, and Mom reading me a mild version of the riot act, because You Wait To Be Offered.*)

The basic principle here is that, well, if a beverage is going to manifest in your general location, you can drink it. You just can’t, you know, take steps to actualize said manifestation.

This is almost entirely mandatory, every time, with the following exceptions:

1) A may pre-empt the first exchange, as follows: “I was going to make myself a cup of tea. Would you care for any?” or “While I’m up, can I get you a beer?”

2) If A and B are immediate family, the task is pretty simple, and A is already getting up. “Mom, while you’re in the kitchen, can you bring me back an orange?”

3) If the invitation to A’s house was specifically for refreshments, and then it goes into Double Secret Overtime Probation Coffee Rules, to wit:

You can’t be the first one to suggest a specific beverage. (In this day and age, if your host offers a choice of wines, you *can* opt for water, but that’s it.) You definitely can’t ask if your host *has* a specific beverage: They Are Not Running a Restaurant. If your host offers a list of choices, you can theoretically pick one nobody’s chosen yet, but in practice everyone feels weird about being the first person to ask for tea or decaf when everyone else is having coffee, so someone in the household usually needs to go for that in order to break the ice.


Q. How the hell long does it take to get a drink?

A. I have known the procurement of a cup of tea to last a good ten minutes before anyone puts the kettle on.

Q. How does this intersect with that meme about sexual consent and tea?

A. Either it demonstrates the failure of any given metaphor to account for the rich and varied tapestry of human existence, while still functioning well at making its point, or it demonstrates why Casanova was not a WASP from the Pittsburgh suburbs. Probably both.

Q. What about cocktails?

A. Oh Jesus that’s an entire book. Suffice it to say that a) one drinks what’s poured, b) mostly the host will have the shaker prepared a good fifteen minutes before anyone shows up, and c) no, you don’t get options, you drink what the season dictates you drink, lest people start drinking gin and tonics in November, which is the sort of thing that leads directly to anarchy and communism.

*This is pretty much true of any situation involving pleasure or convenience. There was a giant post about “ask” versus “guess” culture a while back, vis-a-vis someone wanting to stay with a friend while vacationing in New York, and I found both options culturally *horrifying*: if you *have* to go to New York, like for a job interview, that’s one thing, but if you’re just vacationing, the only option is to go ahead and book a hotel room, then tell your friend that you’ll be there from X to Y if they want to get lunch sometime, then go through a version of the Dance involving “Are you sure I won’t be a bother?” and “No, we’d love to have you!” If your friend has already issued a “you’re totally welcome to crash any time you’re up here” generic-invite, that’s one thing, though you still have to add “but I can totally get a hotel room if that doesn’t work for you” and so forth when you do ask.

One Does Not Drop Hints.


About isabelcooper

I'm Izzy. I write stuff: mostly vaguely fantasy stuff, and most notably the following books: Hickey of the Beast, published March 2011 by Candlemark and Gleam No Proper Lady, published September 2011 by Sourcebooks Lessons After Dark, forthcoming in April 2012 from Sourcebooks I also like video games, ballroom dancing, and various geeky hobbies like LARPing. I have been known to voluntarily purchase and eat circus peanuts. Like, a whole bag at once.
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8 Responses to Rites of My People

  1. I think there’s something deeper here, some kind of pattern of testing out new situations turned into tradition that spans the globe. I recall something about having to “wait until you are offered a thing three times before accepting” in Japan, or at least its analog, Legend of the Five Rings. I had another example to hand, but it just slipped through my brain fingers…
    My family definitely participated in this, though I was never sure if it was a Southern Thing brought in by my maternal grandmother or a Catholic thing brought in by my maternal grandfather.

    • isabelcooper says:

      Ooh. In a Mage: The Ascension game The Last Ex was gonna run, I was going to play a preppie Akashic, and had started noting the similarities between cultures. (Public v. private face, etc.)

  2. mfennvt says:

    I grew up in Omaha and this was totally a thing there, too. Definitely part of Midwest culture. I was occasionally (often?) an embarrassment because I didn’t always follow the rules.

    • isabelcooper says:

      I know the feeling: I’ve become slightly less restrained about it, being young and urban and so forth, and these days often accept right off. There are a few close friends who I will even occasionally ask, when staying at theirs, if I can make myself a cup of tea/have a soda/etc, thus bringing shame to the line of my father and the house of Atreus generally. 😛

      (There’s also a whole complicated Thing about houses: like, you can ask someone over to yours, even to help you out, if you’re close enough to ask for favors generally. And you can *offer* to come over if it’s explicitly to help and you know they might need it, all “So I’m in the neighborhood and my car seems to contain a casserole…” but there’s this whole DNA-plus-situation-plus-wording situation involved in asking yourself over that I’m pretty sure is more complex than some nuclear disarmament treaties.)

      • mfennvt says:

        Oh man, I know! You have me pondering the travel my family took when I was younger. For the most part we stayed with family and friends all around the country, and I’m not even sure what the rule were there, but we never had to stay in a motel if there were folks we could stay with nearby.

        My mom was very by-the-book when it came to stuff like that, and I don’t really know how she worked it, but she did. My dad on the other hand just did what he wanted, so I’m guessing he emboldened her.

        And I, yeah, I just call folks up. “Hey, we’re coming down and would love to see you. Can you put us up for a couple days? We’ll bring beer/wine/stimulant of choice.” No one’s stopped talking to me yet…

  3. I can’t do the “stay with friends” thing and not feel like I’m imposing horribly, so I almost always just book a room. Family is different, but I don’t even like doing that.

    My WASP upbringing included mostly the same rites as you describe (the cocktail one was not similar; in my family you drink what you want, with the caveat that “what you want” is often constrained by what’s available), and when I have tried to act accordingly with either Catholic biological family or friends from non-WASPy parts of the world, it’s been utterly bewildering to both of us.

    • isabelcooper says:

      I *can*, but only with a few people, and even then everyone but immediate family gets a “but if that doesn’t work for you I can always get a hotel room just so you know” on a regular basis.

      And I so hear you on that. That first moment when you’re sitting there blinking all “…but I actually wanted a beverage WAIT NO HOW DO I CHANGE THIS FATE?” is a learning experience and a half. 😛 (This may or may not also have influenced my flirting/hitting on people habits, alas.)

      Cocktails are weird: like, you can order whatever in a restaurant (although I’ve gotten Askance Looks/refusal to include it in a group order from my dad re: pina coladas), but at private parties the “you go with what’s offered” tenet intersects with the thing where there’s really only one cocktail anyone serves at a given time of year*, so.

      *Except for Acts of God, like That July That Was So Cold We Had *Manhattans* on the Fourth.

  4. Ayesha says:

    So what cocktails does your family drink at which times of year?

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