Academic Mis-manners
RSVP-O'd
By Ronald Schuchard, Goodrich C. White Professor of English


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Academic Exchange April/May 2000 Contents Page

At the close of his classic essay on the disparate nature of hosts and guests, the incomparable Max Beerbohm confesses, "though I always liked to be invited anywhere, I very often preferred to stay at home. If any one hereafter shall form a collection of the notes written by me in reply to invitations, I am afraid he will gradually suppose me to have been more in request than ever I really was, and to have been also a great invalid, and a great traveller."

What a delight it would be to have such a collection of concocted RSVPs by Beerbohm, who, like many modern academics, often preferred to decline, but who would have thought it unspeakably vulgar to make no reply at all to an invitation. However important was the maintenance of noblesse oblige to Edwar-dians and Georgians in all manner of social intercourse, the basic obligation of RSVP-ing has received last rites in millennial academia, where fewer and fewer colleagues feel the slightest twinge of conscience about burying invitations in File Thirteen. In the sixteenth edition of Etiquette (1997), said by a librarian to be the least requested book at the reference desk, Emily Post still emphatically maintains that "Anyone receiving an invitation with an RSVP on it is obliged to reply as promptly as possible," reasserting with fierce indignation at century's end that it is still "inexcusably rude to leave someone who has invited you to an event with no idea of how many people to expect."

"It's just a sign of the times," shrugged one chairman resignedly, wounded and then numbed into non-hospitality after three years of inviting no-response, no-show colleagues to department receptions for distinguished lecturers, cocktail and dinner parties, book launchings, award recognitions, and other social events of the academic year. As I conducted some field research on the state of the polite French imperative around the Emory campus, I did not hear the zeitgeist defined, but I did find a minefield of complaints waiting to explode in every corner and at every level. It did not take long to compile a virtual anthology of RSVP tales clamoring to be told.

"It's like the 'Vent' in the ajc about non-signaling drivers," offered one exasperated secretary: "'we don't care where you're going, we just want to know when you're turning.' Well, we don't care what you're doing; we just want to know if you're coming." In recognition of the chronic RSVP problem in her new edition, Emily Post recommends sending response cards as the only way of obtaining a reasonable number of replies. The college of arts and sciences has now adopted this advice for invitations to the annual faculty reception at the Carter Center, hosted by the president, the provost, and the deans of the graduate school and Emory College. Of the 860 invitations sent to arts and sciences faculty last October, only 465 returned the will/will not cards, and this appalling figure was considered "the best we can get."

That polite euphemism translates into the fact that nearly 50 percent of the faculty in our university--where the administration makes a concerted effort to provide a number of hospitable occasions during the year to promote collegiality--could not be bothered to acknowledge in any way a formal RSVP invitation from their president, provost, and deans for a festive occasion. What would our mothers say?
And what happens if the response cards do not accompany the invitation, if only a campus number is given? For the annual faculty reception in the Carlos Museum last November in celebration of the Age of Rubens exhibition--a reception hosted by the president, the provost, the dean of the college, and the director of the museum--eleven hundred RSVP invitations were sent to faculty in all divisions of the university. Are you ready? A total of one hundred RSVPs were received; would you believe that three members of the faculty were among the thirty trustees, administrators, and friends of the museum who showed up for the catered reception and exhibition tour?

Such is the problem that few social events on campus take place without the hosts suffering serious food and drink jitters about how many people may or may not show up. One university caterer confirms that his clients are nearly always forced to overestimate the number of expected guests, resulting in wasted money and trashed food.

Is there an explanation for the growing indifference to etiquette on campus? The redoubtable Miss Manners (Judith Martin) characterized the new breed of boorish professionals in a recent issue of Newsweek (January 1, 2000): "In declaring their freedom from obligations they found tiresome, they never intended others to cease recognizing obligations to them. They hoped to stop [honoring RSVPs] without discouraging generosity, to enjoy hospitality without reciprocating and to inspire loyalty in those with whom they networked."

The attitude toward RSVP is no less a problem for smaller university events, such as the biennial Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature, given last year by the English novelist Dame A.S. Byatt. For every dinner-hosted in turn by the president, the dean of the college, and the Friends of the Library--a majority of the invited faculty members had to be called after the RSVP deadline to try to get an accurate number for caterers (some invitees will show up without replying, just as others will not come after accepting). Some standard telephone conversations: "I didn't see the RSVP"; "Oh, didn't I RSVP to that? Oh, gosh, well, yeah, but I'll have to check and call you back"(does not call back); spouse answers: "We wonder if you and Professor Doe plan to attend the dinner tomorrow night?" followed by a deadly silence, then an icy reply: "I'm sorry to say I was not informed of the invitation" (apologetic, otherwise engaged; one can only guess the tone of the spouse's subsequent conversation with Professor Doe).

It is equally difficult to get replies and commitments from colleagues invited to private parties, some of whom have to be chased down on the Quad: "Hey, yeah, I remember that. Sounds great. I'll think about it, I've got a deadline, but I'll try to come" (To the host peeling shrimp and sautéing onions, thinking about it is not good enough). Last autumn, a faculty member generously prepared a large dinner party for a prominent visitor--shop and chop, all day in the kitchen, six candlelit tables for four, elegantly set in two rooms--only to seat herself in bewilderment, embarrassment, and anger when guests for two tables did not arrive or call. Emily Post, indeed!

My conversations with professors in universities around the country suggest that RSVP-itis is endemic, particularly in research universities, much more than in professional society at large. Is there some sort of social malaise underlying the phenomenon, or has a hardening, embattled, anti-social professional attitude broken the fragile covenant of courtesy in academe? Could the gospels of selfishness and the dogmas of self-importance have penetrated our hallowed halls, where a sacred goal of teaching is to take the young beyond their self-centeredness? One distinguished professor, who would appear to be a desirable guest at any and many social functions, said flatly and smugly, "I get invitations all the time. I never RSVP. I would get nothing done if I did." So contemptuous is he of the intrusions and expectations of RSVP invitations that he regards them as the academic equivalent of a telemarketer's solicitation for a timeshare condo at dinner time.

The self-sufficient professor is reminiscent of Philip Larkin's persona in a poem entitled "Vers De Société," in which he mentally rephrases the reality of a received invitation:

My wife and I have asked a crowd of craps
To come and waste their time and ours: perhaps
You'd care to join us?


"In a pig's arse, friend," he says to himself, invitation in hand, thinking of "all the spare time that has flown/Straight into nothingness by being filled/With forks and faces, rather than repaid/Under a lamp." He picks up his pen resolutely:

Day comes to an end.
The gas fire breathes, the trees are darkly swayed.
And so Dear Warlock-Williams: I'm afraid--

But at least Larkin's introvert, and Beerbohm before him, sent replies to their insufferable hosts, and all the better for the imaginative lies that went into their penning. "Very sorry can't come," telegrammed Lord Beresford to the Prince of Wales after receiving an unwanted dinner invitation. "Lie follows by post." Oscar Wilde instructed us that the chief cause that can be assigned to commonplace literature and bad manners is "the decay of lying as an art, a science, and a social pleasure."

Indeed, the RSVP problem might be totally solved if the imaginative art of RSVP-lying spread across the campus, burning up email cables and inter-office boxes with scintillating wit and contrivance, with at least as much imagination as our students use for explaining late papers. The new RSVP craze might even increase attendance at events, as guests would flock to hear the best RSVPs read out or posted for their entertainment. The year's classics could be anthologized in Emory Report, with awards for the wittiest and most admirable prevarications.

With tongue out of cheek, I should say that this piece was inspired in part by Luke Johnson's eloquent essay on "Shaping a Citizen Faculty" in a previous issue of the Academic Exchange (December 1999/January 2000). Professor Johnson's timely call for "the cultivation of a sense of citizenship larger than 'service' as it is often narrowly defined," and his wise assertion that "If faculty fail to create a sense of collegiality among themselves in small things, they will be incapable of consulting together effectively in large matters," led me to think about the far end of the descending scale of Cs crucial to a thriving academic citizenry: community, collegiality, civility, courtesy. When courtesy breaks down, even for not RSVP-ing to an unwelcome invitation, it has an effect on civility; when civility breaks down, even for not showing up when expected, it has an effect on collegiality; when collegiality breaks down, even for colleagues not supporting their common intellectual enterprises, it has an effect on community. When community breaks down, well, we look for modes and dialogues of reconciliation, this university's theme for 2000­2001.

Before the next invitation is filed or slipped into a stack of papers, consider the ripple effect of forgetting it, of hundreds of us habitually following suit. Even Larkin's hard-shelled persona, after justifying to himself his preferred solitude and initial rejection of the invitation, had second thoughts:

Only the young can be alone freely.
The time is shorter now for company,
And sitting by a lamp more often brings
Not peace, but other things.
Beyond the light stand failure and remorse
Whispering Dear Warlock-Williams: Why, of course--