DEAR MISS MANNERS: I attended a dinner party at which the tablecloth was a unique, delicate and lovely textile that the hostess had picked up on her travels. Before sitting down, she explained that the textile was of special importance to her and was irreplaceable, and asked us not to spill any food or drink on it.
We all said we would be careful. Unfortunately, my glass of wine did get spilled on the textile. It was a complete accident – the glass tipped over when the table was jarred. I apologized profusely and helped with cleanup.
The hostess was very upset. She later emailed me asking me to cover the cost of specialty cleaning for her textile and, if the cleaning was not successful, to reimburse her for the textile itself.
Well, today I got a bill from her for the cleaning service, along with a note reiterating how special this textile is to her, saying she’d asked us not to spill, and explaining that when a guest damages a host’s property, they have a responsibility to pay.
I’m not sure how to respond. I don’t know whether to ignore it, say another version of what I’ve already said (I’m sorry about the spill, but I can’t pay for this), or be more explicit (I’m sorry about the spill, but this was the wrong choice of tablecloth and I don’t think I’m obligated to pay). I have a feeling she won’t let this go, regardless of how I respond. Or should I just pay up?
GENTLE READER: With a total lack of sympathy for the hostess, Miss Manners nevertheless advises you to pay up. It’s just too bad that all the guests didn’t respond to that humiliating warning by jumping away from the table and declaring themselves unworthy to dine on anything so valuable.
Although the hostess’s revealing that she valued the cloth over the guests and her demanding payment are both gross travesties of hospitality, it is true that a guest should offer to replace or fix what he has damaged, even though it was an accident. In turn, a host should refuse, knowing that absorbing accidents is part of the cost of entertaining.