You will not believe what happened to my friend Cindy, even though I swear this is really true.

She was invited to dinner at her friend Kim’s house, which would have been wonderful, except that the day before the dinner, Cindy’s 10-year-old had a fever, and Cindy didn’t think she should leave him with a sitter.

So she called Kim up and said, “Why don’t you come here instead?”

Kim said that would be fine and insisted on bringing the main course, since she’d already made a chicken curry dish that she’s famous for.

“Great,” said Cindy. “Bring it along and I’ll make rice and a salad.”

“Oh, and my friend Joe will bring the bread,” said Kim.

Well, this was all fine, and things simply could not have been nicer–except that when Kim showed up for dinner, all 16 of her other dinner guests came along, too.

Sixteen unexpected dinner guests.

Cindy nearly had to be pharmaceutically revived.

So what Cindy wanted to know from me was, at what point was she supposed to have been able to figure out that this was not an intimate dinner with Kim, Cindy and a guy named Joe?

“What did I miss?” she said to me. “Where was the signal?”

Well, I don’t know why the heck she’s asking me. As a person who owns possibly 16 plates altogether, with most of them currently serving underneath potted plants around the house, I have to admit this story gave me the chills. I could picture myself running around collecting dirt-caked plates and explaining how they’d wash up real nice, while 16 of somebody else’s dinner guests watched.

I mean, if this kind of thing can happen, then obviously we don’t have a civilization anymore.

That’s what I told my friend Lizzie when I recounted the story to her, and she said I should calm down about it, because these kinds of social misunderstandings are rampant.

Why, just a few weeks before, she and her kids had gone off to dinner at some friends’ house, and when they got there, the friends were not home, there was no dinner cooking, and they knew with a dreadful certainty that there had been a horrible miscommunication somehow.

They were perfectly willing to creep quietly away, except for one thing: Lizzie’s husband was supposed to meet them there.

The problem now became: If they waited for him, no doubt the hosts would come home, and they’d feel so bad about the misunderstanding that they’d insist on making dinner and go to lots of trouble and then Lizzie would feel awful, etc., etc. But if they didn’t wait…then he’d show up and not know that this was the wrong night.
Well, they couldn’t decide what to do. They couldn’t stay put and they couldn’t park elsewhere on the street to wait for the husband because no doubt the hosts would come along, spot their car, and then they’d really have a lot of explaining to do. (They couldn’t call him on the cell phone, because cell phones hadn’t been invented yet.)
So Lizzie and her kids did the only possible thing: They drove a while to a place where they were sure her husband would pass, and they waited for him there, to flag him down and explain the situation.

Only it was so dark they couldn’t really spot his car. The oldest son had to flag down each passing car–in the freezing cold–to make sure it wasn’t his father’s.

After about 10 cars there was finally a lull. The son got back in the car, looked over at Lizzie, sighed, and said, “Well. At least we’ve got our health.”

And that, says Lizzie, sums up social misunderstandings. They make you think you’ve lost your mind.

I’m afraid my worst social misunderstandings are tame by comparison.

Once we were invited to a dinner, and when we got there with our salad and apple crisp, it turned out that was also what the hosts had made. The hostess and I had had approximately 28 telephone conversations in which we discussed the menu for this meal. It was to be roasted chicken, green beans and mashed potatoes, salad and apple crisp. There had been so many conversations about this meal, and who would bring what, that–well, at a certain point, I had apparently zoned out.
But slowly–very slowly and painfully–it dawned on everyone that there was not going to be any dinner. No roasted chicken. No mashed potatoes. No green beans. Just lots and lots of salad and apple crisp.

My family kept flashing me weird looks, like this was another one of my oddball ideas of a decent meal. So when the hosts left the room for a moment, I tried to whisper to them about social misunderstandings and the downfall of civilization and all the rest of it.

My husband whispered to me, “So–we were supposed to bring roasted chicken and green beans and mashed potatoes down the street from our house to their house? Why didn’t we just have them over instead?”

I frankly couldn’t remember.

And then–well, we left when we could and went to a restaurant.

Sometimes that’s the best way.