I got an email from a friend a few weeks back. It read something like this:
Dear Delia: I wanted to let you know that I invited X and her husband over to dinner. I feel terribly as I realize that I did this without ever having you guys over first and I've known you longer than X. So I wanted to tell you myself in case you heard it from X. I realize that this may sound silly, but I just felt like I needed to tell you. [My husband] and I would love to have you guys over as well...
I loved this note on so many levels. First, I loved my friend for being so honest and forthright about such a small but (potentially) awkward situation. Second, she even gave me (unsolicited) permission to go ahead and blog about it (suggesting that we really are quite compatible as friends.) Finally, I loved the way that she put her finger on one of those intangible yet instantly recognizable aspects of adulthood: the etiquette of friendship.
When you're a kid, you don't worry too much about the spillover effects of your individual friendships. You're best friends with Suzi one day; the next day, it's Bonnie. Suzi gets jealous and may even hold it against you, but probably only for an hour or so because she's now best friends with Gloria. Until, of course, you guys are best friends with each other again. And so on. As you grow older, however, you come to realize that not only do most things happen within a wider social context, but that there are certain codes governing such interactions -- and they are often unspoken.
Take, for example, the "return" playdate. If one of my kids gets invited to the house of a child that they don't particularly like, and/or they don't enjoy themselves on a given playdate, they have no real comprehension of the idea that whether or not they had a good time, we're going to need to have that child over to our house. "But I don't like Sophia/Johnny/[fill in the blank]," they'll utter in dismay. "Why do I have to have them over to my house?" As grown-ups, however, we do feel this obligation. We know that it's the right thing to do, whether or not we've enjoyed our dinner party/coffee/drink/whatever. It's just the way things are.
In the case of my friend's email, there's certainly no law stating that just because you've known one friend longer than another (mutual) friend, or that the third party (in this case, me) introduced the two of you, you are obligated to socialize with these people in order of acquaintance. And yet, somehow it feels as if you've violated a norm when you entertain out of order.
Other times, the underlying social code is murky, and you're caught off guard trying to interpret a situation. Have you ever invited someone to coffee and had them show up with a third party, unannounced? It's really hard to interpret that, isn't it? Do they not want to hang out with you? Are they trying to be "efficient" with their coffees? Or did they just genuinely think that the two of you would hit it off? I'm endlessly fascinated by these tacit codes of adulthood that weave our society together.
So, tell me. What have I missed? What social norms have you found yourself obeying/violating/noticing as you go through adult life? Which ones would you readily dispense with? Which ones are useful?