I’m in a very happy long term relationship. The biggest problem we face is we’re both introverts, and have some social anxiety along with it. It’s hard to make friends, but we’re trying. We’re very geeky, so we’re trying to get involved in geek spaces.
Next comes the big hurdle, we have diet issues. He has really bad food allergies, and I’m vegetarian. At home we’re fine, we can work around our issues, but…
Social gatherings almost always involve food. We barely eat out anymore because it’s not worth the risk of being so sick afterwards. The local cosplay group meets inside a pizza place, the local crafting group meets at a BBQ place. Going to someone’s house means feeling like entitled jerks for having to grill them on labels and cross contamination, or hoping they’re cool with us packing our own food.
There’s a cosplay meet-and-greet at a con coming up, at a restaurant where we can tell ahead of time nothing’s going to be safe. Is it rude to request it be held on the patio if that’s an option?
What are some scripts for turning down food invitations? Is there a polite way to suggest social gatherings that don’t take place somewhere that could kill him? Right now we’re both so worried about coming across as Entitled Jerks that we tend to just avoid all the gatherings that involve food, which means we don’t get out much at all. We want to make friends, but we also don’t want to get Frequent Flier points at the ER. How can we compromise?
We’re already learned that saying the specifics of the allergy means people will generally lecture us that there’s no way whatever food could contain that allergen, even if we already know it does, so it’s best to stay vague when declining invitations.
Dear Healthy Hermit,
Since discussions of the host-guest relationship show no signs of abating, let’s continue with a theme. Social connection and food are two very primal human needs (that taste great together) and I expect this will generate a similar amount of discussion.
You mention social anxiety as part of the mix of what is going on. I am in no way qualified to address that. I generally recommend taking all emotional & mental health stuff very seriously and seeking treatment if it is interfering with your happiness and your functioning. This answer will be focused on rituals around event-planning, hosting, and food and some of the written and unwritten rules thereof. If anxiety sufferers want to weigh in with their experiences and specific workarounds in the comments, that is extremely welcome.
Let’s start with parties that are not private friends-only events at people’s houses, arranged through hobby groups, Meetup, Facebook, etc. One of the things I suggest when planning Captain Awkward meetups is that hosts think about a varied menu (both in terms of price and vegetarian options) and also about general accessibility. I think organizers so far have been doing a great job with this, and especially with choosing places that publish menus online so people can do reconnaissance ahead of time. When event-planning, there is no magic perfect place or time or menu that will make everyone happy, and I have a low tolerance for people who do not do the work of planning events or contribute anything at the planning stages and then complain later that it was not somehow perfectly tailored to them, but as a host I recommend doing some very basic work to make sure that it’s not just wealthy meatatarians with super-stairclimbing ability at your parties.
Hermit, keep a few things in mind about the groups in your town:
- It is relatively safe to assume that people who host these events want people to come and enjoy themselves. They like you just fine, they want you to be included and want to get to know you, and will reward your efforts to connect. Bonus: You are doing all the right stuff!
- While it may not feel good inside your head, your worry that you will come across as rude or accidentally do something wrong is a pretty good sign that you are being thoughtful and considerate about your interactions, which is the basis of politeness.
- The groups meet at those places because those places have been good about accommodating large geeky groups in the past and most members have probably been happy with things. Acknowledging that there is a positive reason that they have chosen those spaces (A good patio! Lots of tables! Easy parking! Into cosplay!) will go a long way.
- In the beginning when a group is small and made up of people you directly know, you don’t have to think so much about accessibility – it is an easy and forgivable oversight for these planners to have made. They’re not eating BBQ at you.
- That said, chances are you are not alone and that other people would feel more welcome and included if there were more dietary variety on offer, so your speaking up is a kindness that you are doing both for yourself and for others.
- Constructive criticism will be best absorbed if you a) have demonstrated some investment in and connection to the group b) offer alternatives and positive suggestions.
Which means that:
“Hey Crafting Group, you always have meetings at a BBQ place and I can’t eat anything there, which is why I don’t come. Could you fix that so I can come?,” may not be received as well as “Hey, Crafting Group, could we try X venue sometime? I checked and they’d be willing to host us during this same time slot” or “Crafting group, I will be at X venue on Y day with my glitter gun. Stop by for a little while and join me?
The first is the truth, and a fair question, but the second & third answers imply that you’ve done two pieces of work:
1) Researched alternatives that would work better for you and be accessible and hospitable to others.
2) Possibly eaten a meal at home and then gone to BBQ crafting group anyway a few times to socialize and drink iced tea with these folks. And yes, this will mean a few rounds of “Don’t you want to order something?” “Naw, I’m a vegetarian, but thanks!” Before you go changing it up, go be a part of what it is now and make sure you even like these people.
Also, if you go with this approach, give it a lot of time, and give it a few tries and try it a few different ways before you give up. By “a few different ways”, I mean, there is trying to move the event & trying to host an alternative event, but there is also contacting a few members individually and inviting them out (or over) and making connections that way.
By time, I mean that Commander Logic (awesome at making friends!) and I (pretty decent at making friends!) both needed about a year of sustained effort to make close friendships after we’d moved to Chicago. I don’t want to depress you, I just want to be really honest that it is a process and that the people who look like they effortlessly have tons of people around them actually put in a lot of effort and had many lonely times.
Oh, and since you mentioned crafting, let me tell you about an awesome party one of my friends hosts periodically, known as “Zombie Craft Day” where people bring half-finished craft projects or stuff they’ve meant to get started on for a while and work on them communally. Is it time for a Zombie Craft Day where you live?
As for your specific question about the upcoming cosplay meet & greet, asking to move the event to the patio will have significantly more traction if you’ve been to one of their events and met some of the people at least once before. If this is your first time ever going and meeting these people, honestly, I would eat at home (your partner sounds like they would have to eat at home almost 100% of the time anyhow) and stick to beverages once you’re there. You’ll almost certainly get questions & pushback about why you’re not eating, and here are some ways to answer them:
“Partner is on a very strict, medically supervised diet so we ate at home. We’re really glad to meet you, though!”
“We have some strict dietary issues that means it’s often better for us to eat at home. However did you make that jolly hat?”
I strongly suggest that you not go further into detail than this, in order to head some of the interrogation off at the pass. Let people get to know you without the food stuff being the only thing they know about you, let them know up front that there is some complicated food stuff going on, and do what you can to enjoy yourself. This opens the door for next time. “Next time, could we maybe do this on the patio?” “Next time could we do it at X venue? We’ve had really good luck with the food there.”
Now let’s talk about parties at people’s houses.
I think when you are hosting a party in your house, the best policy is Your Party, Your Rules, You Can Cry If You Want To.
Example: A local friend throws a cocktail party once a year. It lasts for exactly two hours. There is a suggested dress code. There is generally one “house drink” with assorted mixers, and that drink will contain a substantial amount of booze. It is on the top floor of a building, so you will have to climb and later drunkenly lurch down many flights of stairs. Parking in the neighborhood sucks. There is a cat (who spends the party shut into one particular room). The invitation is very clear about all of these details so that people can make a good decision about whether they want to go, and if you can’t make that time slot, couldn’t get a babysitter, never take the bus or couldn’t catch a cab, have massive pet allergies, etc. you are a grownup and can decide that.
Imagine for a second that you’re invited to that particular party.
Say you personally don’t drink alcohol. By all means, go to the party, slide the thing you brought that you know that you can drink into the fridge, and have a good time.
Say you personally don’t drink. By all means, email the host and say “I don’t drink alcohol, but I really want to come. Will there be non-booze there or would it be cool if I brought x (specific thing you like to drink)?” It is okay to ask the hosts question like this, just like it was actually ok in the last letter for people with kids to initially say “The invite doesn’t specify; can we bring our kids?” Since the person invited you, they want you to be there. Go to the party and have a good time.
Say you injured yourself in a .gif creation incident and can’t climb stairs right now. By all means, decline the invitation, and perhaps follow up with the host to arrange a time to see her that is located on the ground floor of something. “I won’t make it, but are you free for lunch next week? I’d love to catch up soon.”
If you have to decline an invite, there is no obligation to give any reason at all. If you do decide to give a reason, and you’d like to be invited to something in the future, make sure you do not say anything snarky, passive-aggressive, or turn the act of not going to a party into any kind of complaint or lament or pressure.
If people are inviting you to stuff at their homes, good news! You’re doing the social interaction stuff right and they want to include you and get to know you better. Right now, we’re still talking about friendly acquaintances vs. friends, so let’s get into how you bring up dietary stuff with, say, a party where the hosts are serving a meal. Good hosts who are having you over for food/drink will generally inquire if there is any dietary stuff they should know, but even if they don’t, it is totally ok to raise it.
Email them (vastly preferable to commenting in an Evite or Facebook group) and say:
“We would love to join you! FYI, I’m a vegetarian, and partner has some pretty strict dietary stuff going on, so would it be ok if we brought x dish to share?”
Key word being “to share.” When you’re just getting to know someone*, “We brought vegan tamales, have some!” is a better proposition than “We brought weird single-serving tupperware with our own precisely measured portions of food because we don’t trust you not to try to kill us with your good intentions.” Make something delicious and simple that doesn’t require taking over the hosts’ entire kitchen to assemble and pass it around.
Now, you might encounter a SuperHost, who feels that they MUST now make something that they are SURE will be safe and want all the details. At this point you have two choices: Trust them to get it right and risk it OR say, “That is incredibly kind of you, and we’re sorry to be high maintenance! But we have to be really, really careful with it and would feel more comfortable knowing that at least one dish was 100% ok for us to eat. Why don’t we bring x thing with us, and you help us out by listing ingredients of whatever you make so we know what might be safe for us to try? We so appreciate it.”
If they push back at you after that? They are making something that is not really about them all about them, and you are not the ones who made it weird by needing to not spend the next two weeks pooping your souls out of your butts.
Here is the thing:
You get to draw bright boundaries around your own safety. You get to do that without other people’s buy-in to every detail.
Here is the other thing:
As much as this great Get Out And Meet People! initiative of yours is about finding community and people who will like and accept you, it is also about you finding people who make you happy and feel safe and good. This is not a one way audition, where they have all the power to accept or reject you and you have none. Someone who treats you poorly around food, second-guesses your food choices, belittles you around food, makes it hard for you to feel included in the group, makes your very real needs all about them, etc. is not someone who is going to be a good friend for you.
Also keep in mind: The group is not a monolith. Somewhere in those groups there is someone who will like you and get you and want to help you. Somewhere in there is someone who, once informed of what you have going on, will back you up and help you. “Hey, guys, let’s look for a place with more vegetarian options, ok? Poor Hermit shouldn’t have to eat before s/he comes to games night.”
Now with close friends? Interrogate the restaurant choices, bring on the tupperware & scan the labels in their kitchen. They will work with you! And as you get more comfortable with people, you can start hosting gatherings in your house where you control the menu and have the social interaction you desire. You can start to change the culture of the group, where listing all ingredients on a shared dish or being more aware of diverse dietary options becomes routine.
The advice here is about how to go into new spaces and new communities with the least amount of friction possible, so you have the opportunity to connect with people and aren’t letting the health and dietary issues put you out of the mix (by, for example, avoiding things you really want to go to) before you even get started. I think it requires some work on your part, which may seem unfair and harder than it needs to be. I mean, it sucks to go to a party at a restaurant and sip water all night because there is nothing you can eat, and it sucks to have to do all the work of educating people and navigating THEIR issues with food and boundaries, and it sucks that eating someone’s bread and salt might end in an expensive and terrifying emergency room visit, so if I skipped the “Oh man, that must be really hard” part to get to the advice here is your serving of empathy.
For some hilarious writing about this issue, I recommend the salty and profane work of my friend Samantha Irby, also known as bitches gotta eat. She suffers from Crohn’s disease, and her story about attending a speed-dating event in an adult diaper is truly unforgettable.