It's not very nice to invite oneself along on outings one happens to hear about. People who behave this way need gentle correction -- and yes, it may hurt a little bit, but through pain we learn -- so they don't repeat the error, putting yet more people in the awkward position that you are now in.
The job of gentle correction can be difficult -- take it from someone who knows -- but you'll be doing your acquaintance a valuable service. I don't see why you couldn't tell him almost exactly what you told me in your letter: You really wish he could come (OK, I added that part to soften the blow), but your out-of-town guests have been looking forward to spending some quality time catching up with you. You might even add that they have some personal things they want to discuss (or vice versa) ... which might very well be true.
If you take this tack, you'll have done nothing to offend, and if your acquaintance is so thin-skinned as to be hurt, he would be wise to stop putting people in uncomfortable situations.
Dear Social Grace,
I'm having a surprise dinner party for my husband's 40th birthday, and I've verbally invited three people from our office (my husband and I work together) to the party. I didn't mention to any of the invitees that not everyone in our office was invited. My problem is that one of the invited guests asked a question about the party in the presence of someone who hadn't been invited. Do I now need to invite that person, or will it look like I am inviting him and his wife just because he found out about the party? The dinner party is being held at a very expensive restaurant, and I cannot afford to invite the entire staff and their spouses. What should I do?
Brenda in San Jose
Here we have an example of what can go wrong when we're careless about the boundaries between our social lives and our professional lives. Though we are increasingly encouraged to think of our co-workers as "family" and "friends," the misuse of these terms is just one of the ways huge, faceless corporations trick us into working 18-hour days, sleeping under our desks, and living on the congealed-oil-and-sawdust provided by hallway vending machines. In fact, sometimes a co-worker is just a co-worker, and that's OK. So you're having a birthday party, obviously a function not related to work, a social occasion. You needn't invite everyone at the office -- or even everyone who hears about it. (And yes, in the case you describe, it certainly would look as though you were inviting the couple simply because one of them overheard you.)
Part of throwing a dinner party is choosing whom to invite -- and we all know (or should know) that not everyone can get invited to every party. Anyone who would be offended because he or she didn't get invited to a dinner party that others were speaking about ... well, that person needs to grow up, if I may be so blunt. You and your guests now know that it's important to draw distinctions between workplace activities, which are fine to discuss at the office in the presence of co-workers, and social activities, which might better be discussed privately.
Dear Social Grace,
This Saturday, I'll be hosting a party, at which we'll be playing games. I'm planning to give winning guests prizes: bottles of champagne for them to enjoy over the holidays. My uncle, a recovering alcoholic, will be attending. Should he win, is giving him alcohol a horrible faux pas, or is it acceptable, knowing that he can serve the alcohol to guests in his home?
Via the Internet
Dear Madam or Sir,
Giving a recovering alcoholic a "prize" of champagne is the sort of thing that, if I were to do so by accident, would cause me a painful twinge of embarrassment. If I didn't know my guests well, I might consider a less potentially objectionable gift (for example, simple stationery for thank you notes always comes in handy over the holidays). I guess there's no real faux pas in accidentally giving a nondrinker alcohol (or a vegetarian a canned ham, or a Jew a Christmas tree ornament), but aren't you cringing just thinking about it? However, knowingly giving alcohol to a recovering alcoholic -- my understanding is that many prefer not to have alcohol in their homes at all -- might be considered rather tactless. Since you have the advantage of knowing that alcohol is a poor gift for one of your guests, you might try to find a more appropriate selection of prizes.
Dear Social Grace,
I recently returned to my job after five months on disability. My prognosis for overcoming my ailment is very good. Before arriving at work each morning (I work in a health-care facility), I take in sufficient nourishment, which holds me over until lunch. The problem? Often a breakfast tray is mistakenly served to me as well as to the patients. Several colleagues, knowing of my condition, insist I eat what is served, regardless of my earlier intake. Due to a deep-seated loathing of witnessing food go to waste, I have acquiesced to their wishes and had partial helpings. Rest assured I am not at risk for anorexia. Other than to submit a request to the kitchen to stop considering me for future breakfast trays, how do I best express to my colleagues any future refusals in a way that simply conveys my appreciation for their concern but deems it misplaced?
No Further Helpings
Dear Overserved Sir,
What, exactly, is preventing you from asking the kitchen to stop with the unnecessary trays? It seems to me that the solution to your problem is as easy as that. No food will go to waste, and your nourishment level will hold at "sufficient." Not wanting to waste food is noble, and I suppose you might make an effort to find a very hungry person to give your tray to (though I understand that health-care-facility cuisine is not irresistible to many). But the answer to the question of unwanted food is simplicity itself: Say, "No, thank you," and repeat as necessary.