Just Say No

by Liz Caskey on November 3, 2005

   It is 10:30 p.m. and only two of my 13 guests have arrived. The invitation stated 9:30 p.m. very clearly as the time that the party would start. Everyone invited RSVP-ed that they were coming. “So why are they all so late?”, I grumble to my boyfriend and two other friends who arrived on time. I look at my margarita glass nearly empty (again). At this rate, by the time the rest of the crowd rolls in, I will be wasted from just waiting for them to arrive.
   Throwing dinner parties in Chile as an expat has been, quite frankly, hell. Not that I don’t actually enjoy the parties or the preparation but there are a few cultural factors that even after many years living here still are hard to swallow: unpunctuality, false acceptances of invitations, or worse, the endless bag of excuses of why someone couldn’t make it and never called. If committed in the US, these would be the ultimate social faux pas. The offending person would be blacklisted; ostracized; absolutely confronted about the absence. In Chile? People say nothing at best and let it pass off as no big deal. Well, I am tired of acting like it is no big deal. In fact, I have had it, the colmo, as we say in Spanish. Let’s go item by item to understand this veritable cultural phenomenon that has me perplexed and stressed when I want to have people over for dinner.
    Unpunctuality. Latins in general are not exactly known for being “on time”. Chileans, however, tend to be far more punctual than others, although there does seem to be a superseding notion of lack of respect for the other person’s time and effort by arriving consistently at least 15 minutes late for everything. This manifests itself for appointments of all sorts, including business meetings, so imagine how it translates to the social scene. In Chile, for social engagements it is considered rude to actually arrive on time; even worse, early. The rule of thumb is to usually add 30 minutes to the time stated on the invitation. I now have adopted the habit of asking, half laughingly but totally serious, if the invitation is Gringo or Chilean time. The difference is huge. The night of the my Mexican dinner party, the rest of the guests did turn up—but not before 11p.m., the last one arriving at 12:30a.m., or three hours late. At no time did the phone ring with any one of them saying, “Hey, I am running late, I will be there in 30 minutes.”  I was bowled over by their lack of timing and courtesy. I had cooked all day!
   Another common happening in many dinner parties is people accepting invitations knowing very well that they cannot nor wish to attend. This baffles me beyond comprehension. As one Chilean friend explained to me (as I was in a rage), “Liz, people here do not want to hurt your feelings or create a conflict. They feel like you want to hear a yes, so it better to accept and then not come, rather than turn you down to your face.” Say what? Hmm… Somehow a polite no doesn’t seem to be nearly as rude as flat out not coming. From the stand point of the hostess, this rationalizing is ridiculous as obviously other people could have been invited who actually would have come. If there are any Chileans reading this, pleeeeasssse, just learn to say no. Really. It is infinitely more rude to accept and be a no-show than to be honest from the get-go. A lot of thought and planning go into a good party and if invited, it is because some truly wants you to come. Show some respect regardless of your answer. I know not all Chileans behave in this manner, but unfortunately, there are more than a few who do.
     Finally, a subcategory of the above topic: people who accept and always have an “escape route”. What do I mean by this? They accept with some amount of a bona fide intention of attending but always have a well thought-out excuse ready if something better comes up. Dinner party commitment phobia? Maybe. In Chile, I have seen a pattern that these excuses are almost always sensitive issues, like family, personal, or health-related issues. Why? Think about it. It is difficult to reproach someone for not coming (nor calling to say they couldn’t make it). In my experience, it can even work against you if not handled expertly. You, yes you, will be cast as the insensitive bad guy because you didn’t ask nor act understanding of their situation and know it would have been an impossible feat for them to advise you of their absence. Of course emergencies happen. Everyone knows and understands that. However, when it happens 3, 4, or 10 times, it seems to be more than coincidental.
    How do I now protect myself from these dinner party woes and still manage to have a good time? I am currently  creating an “approved list” of friends and colleagues who are trustworthy and have proven their dinner acceptances. However, I still have some flaky friends that I enjoy seeing from time to time. I guess if I really want them to come, I have to take the calculated cultural risk and incorporate it into the planning. And worst case scenario? As in, everybody confirms and nobody comes? Well, to be truthful, that has never happened here. And if it does happen someday, after my initial rant, I probably will enjoy having all the leftovers for the next week.

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