Friday, June 14, 2019

Exploiting Generosity

Here’s an interesting ethical conundrum. OK, it’s not that much of a conundrum, but it’s still interesting.

A couple is celebrating their tenth wedding anniversary. It’s a second marriage. All involved are in their 50s. That means, they are not children. Friends of the couple propose a soiree at a fancy restaurant, on them. The friends are wealthy and can presumably afford the expense.

The wife chooses to invite her brother-in-law, a man she praises for having a good heart, but who is decidedly lacking in couth, in manners or in character. Shall we say that the man abuses privileges? We shall.

Here is the letter, written to Carolyn Hax:

My very generous and wealthy (this is relevant) friends offered to throw a dinner for me and my husband for our 10th wedding anniversary. This is a second marriage for both of us so we're all in our 50s. They asked for the guest list and we gave it to them, including my brother-in-law.

He's the sweetest guy in the world, would do anything for you, but does have this flaw that he's always looking to "make out" or game the system, if you know what I mean.

He ended up ordering pre-dinner drinks that had to total in the hundreds (three shots of a very expensive scotch), he ordered two steaks for dinner and no sides, and he chose a bottle of wine that my friend who sat next to him later told me ran five figures.

Our friends didn't balk at the check, but you could tell they were surprised at the final total since they discreetly asked the waiter to confirm the charges. I would like to address it with them and offer to pay toward my brother-in-law's extravagance. My husband says they had to expect that sort of thing since they picked such a fancy restaurant and didn't choose a set menu, and we'd just be embarrassing them. Which of us is right?

Of course, Hax sees well that no one is right. She is rightly appalled.

The letter writer should have known better than to invite her grifting brother-in-law. If she thinks that his good heart makes up for his inability to follow the normal rules of decorum, she suffers from a grotesque failure of judgment.

One does not know how this man is related. Is he her sister’s husband or her husband’s brother? Hax assumes that the man is her husband's brother, but it is not quite as clear from the letter.

Still and all, her husband is suffering from a decided absence of character. Their friends, soon, I suspect, to be ex-friends, have a reasonable expectation of proper decorum. That means, they would not expect their guests to choose a bottle of wine that costs five figures.

The issue is, how can the letter writer recover what she has lost? How can she repair the damage to the friendship? One does not know whether the friendship has been damaged beyond repair, but surely it is on life support. Be clear, she herself is at fault for inviting her miscreant brother-in-law. She is an adult and she knows him well enough. It's like inviting a fox into a hen house.

Hax offers the following:

Call your friends and say you’re horrified by your brother-in-law’s behavior, of which you are only now fully aware, and offer to make them whole; either way, the next dinner or three will be on you. Also tell your brother-in-law you are upset he took advantage of your friends’ generosity, and let your spouse know you’re doing it; and, finally, when it’s up to you, don’t invite your brother-in-law for anything that involves a menu again, unless you’re ready to pick up the tab.

This is cogent and sound. She or her husband ought to confront the brother-in-law about his derelict behavior. And, perhaps she should go beyond what Hax suggests, and cease to invite him to family functions. One suspects that this was not a one-off event.

She ought to explain the state of play to her obtuse husband and then offer a generous gift to the offended couple. Without, I would say, asking whether they want it or not. She ought to apologize and to offer a gift-- to make amends.Not, however, by giving an expensive bottle of wine.


JPL17 said...

Wow. And I thought I had a boorish brother-in-law. This guy is my brother-in-law on steroids.

I don't pity the woman, however, since she should have known that inviting him would lead to social disaster. My wife and I banned my brother-in-law (my wife's brother) from all social functions years ago, and all he did was steal all the Alaska King Crab legs at our son's wedding reception dinner.

Sam L. said...

"She is an adult and she knows him well enough. It's like inviting a fox into a hen house." In this case, more of a one-man wolf pack.

trigger warning said...

I love my older sister. She, too, has a heart of gold. But it's usually realized in practice with somebody else's gold. I would never invite her to a fine dining establishment on somebody else's dime.

Having said that, if it was truly a five-figure bottle of vino, perhaps a summer weekend in Vail or a Tiffany's gift card would be appropriate.