Miss Conduct

Advice on charitable giving

How to deal with pressure to give money when you already give time. Plus, what to do when you can’t eat something at a dinner party.

Illustration by Lucy Truman

> We recently moved to a new town. I don’t have money to spare, but I volunteer my time and talent. Yet it seems that every month there’s another $50-a-head fund-raiser I can’t afford. What is the most polite way to deflect questions about why I’m not going?

M.C. / Scituate

Smile all the way up to your eyes, laugh ruefully, and confide: “We just can’t do everything. You know how it is.” Then ask about something you know the questioner is involved in (“How is the silent auction coming?”) and listen sympathetically. Before you know it, you’ll have a reputation as a “people person” who nonetheless has the courage to set boundaries. You will be revered.

You feel self-conscious about not attending the fund-raisers because you know you have financial constraints. No one else has to know this – but would it be terrible if they did? If you want to exercise some real leadership, watch how money matters are treated in the organizations you volunteer for. Is there a barrier to entry for good volunteers? A thoughtlessness around financial privilege that might be hindering the organizations’ work? You probably haven’t been involved long enough to know just yet. But if that does turn out to be the case, some brave, simple honesty on your part would do more good than a hundred $50 plates.

> I’ve been invited to the 35th anniversary celebration of two dear friends where an entire seven-course meal, from the salad to the sorbet, will be made with sweet potatoes – I’m mildly allergic to them! I didn’t say a word to my hostess. I’m thinking if I take a few bites of each course, I can get through without seeming rude. Thoughts?


C.F. / Kansas City, Missouri

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Seven courses of sweet potatoes? It will certainly be a meal to remember. I’d be curious to hear how the evening goes (and I’m sure my readers would be as well, so please let us know). How many of the guests made it all the way to sorbet? And, for the love of Moses . . . why?

But you didn’t come to Miss Conduct for more questions, did you, dear? You want some answers. So here goes: Guest-host food disconnects are always awkward, and how to handle them depends on many factors. Discretion such as yours is a good option for a somewhat formal, choreographed event in which the food is one of the main attractions. (Because it is, right? Please tell me this sweet-potato mania reflects an aesthetic choice, not some bizarre cost-saving scheme.) Eat something in advance and plead to a bit of a stomachache at the party. Nibble at whatever dish seems least aggressively yam-tastic and make lively conversation.

Alternately, you could come clean to your close friends. Food is personal – I’m assuming that sweet potatoes are alarmingly meaningful to this couple – so rejecting people’s culinary offerings can be psychologically freighted. Which means that when you can’t eat the food, engage with it: Ask questions, admire. Do you have a camera? If so, why not volunteer to photograph each course before it is served? Your friends would love a record of their unusual feast. You’d be the belle of the beta-carotene ball! 

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, who has a PhD in psychology.NEED MISS CONDUCT’S HELP? Write to her at And read her blog at