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Unburdened by Manners

COVER STORY

In L.A., the Only People Who Keep Social Commitments Are Proper Hosts, Polite Guests and Other Losers

November 26, 2000|MARTIN BOOE | Martin Booe's last piece for the magazine was about spending the holidays alone

Dear Ann Landers:

Please warn your readers that an RSVP from a Southern California resident means nothing. I cooked for a week for a big holiday party, and seven of my 12 dinner guests--all of whom had RSVP'd "yes"--left me stranded up that well-known creek. One guest "didn't feel like driving," another "had to go to the movies" with her mother, a third said she had to do laundry.

Had It in L.A., April 8, 1999

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Dear Ann Landers:

My husband and I were recently married. Our wedding was beautiful, but there was one problem. We had 17 no-shows and four surprise guests. That means we paid for 13 extra meals that nobody ate.

San Diego, Oct. 6, 1998

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Dear Ann Landers:

Personally, I find Southern Californians delightfully flexible. They have the rare ability to understand the cosmic importance of contemplating one's navel instead of responding to a dinner invitation.

Kirk in L.A., July 14, 1999

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AS THESE LETTERS TO ANN LANDERS SHOW, WHEN IT COMES to honoring social commitments, we Southern Californians have a reputation for casualness. Well, not exactly casualness. Unreliability. Oh, all right. Flakiness. As in, "Sorry I flaked on you." I don't know where the word "flake" came into usage as a verb, but it couldn't have more currency than here in the lower half of the Golden State, where an RSVP has all the value of a turn signal on the 405 Freeway.

Take my friend Tania Oesterreicher, who moved here recently from her native Vienna. She and her husband gave a brunch. There were a lot of no-shows. No explanations. No excuses, not even lame ones. "I just don't understand people here," she fretted. "They say they're going to come and then you never hear from them again." She was starting to think people didn't like her.

It seems that Tania, like so many uninitiated newcomers, is burdened by a code of social conduct. Austrians apparently honor invitations, and they do so by showing up on time. Maybe this comes from their proximity to the Balkans, where any hint of bad manners can trip off a 30-year blood feud.

Tania asked me to help her understand Southern California "manners." I'd rather have tried to explain the "Matrix" plot, but seeing the innocence seeping from her eyes, I agreed.

"Show me the list of MIAs," I said.

Eric. "Eric said yes," Tania said.

"Yes doesn't mean yes, " I told her. "It means maybe."

"This cannot be," she said.

"Did anybody say maybe?" I asked.

"Johnna, Charlie and Michael."

"Always scratch the maybes off the list. Here, maybe means no."

Tania's eyes grew wide, as though she'd just seen Judith Martin drop-kick a halibut. "Then what does no mean?" she asked.

I told her no means, in so many words, "May your family contract hepatitis C and die in a warehouse fire." Then I asked, gently, if anyone had in fact responded with a no.

She shook her head. That was a relief. At least she was in no imminent physical danger.

Like many Southern Californians who have moved here from someplace else, I had long ago developed the social scar tissue you acquire after your first flake-induced wounds. But now, jolted by Tania's pained look, I was reliving those first pangs of disbelief at hearing the words, "Hey, I flaked on you."

Welcome to California, Tania. You think presidential balloting was a mess? Try getting an accurate head count for Saturday.

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MY FRIEND MIKE SZYMANSKI REMEMBERS A CALL HE GOT ONE night. A pair of acquaintances were on their way to a birthday dinner party but apparently had experienced one of those spontaneous losses of enthusiasm. Out of deep consideration for their hosts, they inquired if Mike and a friend would take their places. The party begins in 30 minutes, they said, and here's the phone number and security code for the gated driveway.

I shook my head. "Embarrassing for you," I said, "and the host must know that you know you weren't invited in the first place."

"But the reason I wasn't invited," Mike replied, "was that I didn't even know the person having the party."

And people say no one in L.A. ever has an original idea.

In recent months, I've collected other examples. A pattern has emerged. Flaking, it seems, comes in three strains. First, there is Aggressive-Passive Flaking. It occurs when the invitee enthusiastically accepts an invitation, then doesn't bother to call back when he discovers that your six-course, $350 dinner for 10 conflicts with his favorite "Seinfeld" rerun. Tania was a sad victim of the Aggressive-Passives.

The second type is Passive-Aggressive Flaking. It is the right to regard an invitation as the equivalent of a $50 Trader Joe's gift certificate, redeemable at any time and completely transferable. Mike experienced this particular wonder, as did my friend Ricky, who cowardly refused to let me use his last name but whose ordeal demonstrates that flaking isn't the exclusive domain of guests.

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