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Miss Conduct

Dinner parties: Can you abandon one for a better offer?

Plus, to gift or not to gift? That is the question.

Lucy Truman

About a month ago we invited a good friend to dinner. Five days before she e-mailed, saying that she had been invited to an “annual dinner” with some very good friends of hers. She said she knew it was bad manners to bag out and that she was “leaning toward” joining us. Ultimately, she decided to go to dinner with her other friends. We’re shocked, as this is not something we would have expected from this well-bred woman. She wants to make another dinner date soon, but we’re feeling gun-shy and awkward. How do we best handle this?

C.P. / Marstons Mills

And that’s the problem with transparency. If only your friend had had the good sense to lie! How simple it would have been for her to say that she had a prior obligation that she’d forgotten about — drat that new calendar software, it never synchs up correctly! Then she could have gone off to her Annual Dinner and you could have rescheduled your AnyOldTime Dinner and everyone would have been happy.

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But no, Ms. Crystal Clearpanes had to walk you through every step, and now you feel all weird and self-conscious like a Judy Blume heroine, and Crystal probably doesn’t even know.

The official etiquette line is that you don’t cancel plans because something better comes along. If you’ve promised the new girl in class that you’ll come over and help her alphabetize her record collection, you don’t ditch her just because the quarterback asked you out for a malted. As an ethical principle, this is simple and perfect, a little touch of Golden Rule. In practice though, everyone knows that Old College Roommate in Town for One Night trumps Hanging Out at Home Depot with Jim, even if you promised Jim weeks ago that Sunday was Home Depot night. Jim, of course, would bail on you if it were his old college roommate in town, so he understands. Sometimes we do wind up canceling plans, not because we value one friend more than the other, but because some feasts are movable and others are not.

Accept Crystal’s dinner invitation. She loves you. She wouldn’t have been stupidly honest with you if she didn’t. If you want to tell her that her decision hurt you, go ahead. The three of you can talk it out. Maybe you’ll wind up closer than ever, or maybe you’ll wind up amazed at how even close friends from similar backgrounds can have such vastly different notions of appropriate social behavior. Either frame of mind is a productive one for enjoying a dinner party.

When gifts are not mentioned in a 25th anniversary invitation, should we assume one is required?

H.J. / Portland, Oregon

Gifts are never required. To be required is, by definition, not to be a gift. And anyone who is old enough to have been married for 25 years probably has more tchotchkes and gadgets and hard-cover bestsellers that they mean to get around to reading one of these days, truly, than they know what do to with. General advice for all adult parties: Bring a card and a bottle of wine. If you feel inspired to buy a specific present for this specific person, do so. If not, don’t.

The main difference between a “no gifts” party and a regular party is that at a “no gifts” party, you discreetly hand the gift to the celebrant or leave it on a side table, to avoid embarrassing the people who actually obeyed the instructions.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.

WHAT KIND OF PARTY FOUL HAS LEFT YOU SCRATCHING YOUR HEAD? Send questions to Miss Conduct at missconduct@globe.com. And read her blog at boston.com/missconduct.

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