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20-40-60 Etiquette: Empty-handed potluck attendee questioned

QUESTION: We have an informal gathering of friends four times a year to just get together and catch up. We decided when we organized, to have about 20 people that people would bring a potluck dish every time to share with the others. We have been doing this for five years. There is a woman in the group who has never brought anything to any of the meetings and she is always present. How do we politely tell her that it is time for her to start contributing to our potlucks?

CALLIE’S ANSWER: Sounds like it is time to send an updated email about everyone bringing a dish. While I’m sure this is more than annoying for everyone else who does bring something, I’m sure y’all have plenty to go around. You can always edit your list and cut them out.

LILLIE-BETH’S ANSWER: Do you give out assignments for each time — like “you bring dessert and I’ll bring the main dish and you bring the salad”? Or does everyone just bring what they want? (If that’s the case, how do you ensure variety?) Do you take turns hosting? Is she ever the host? If so, then she’s at least on the hook for your event. If you have been doing this for years, surely she has noticed that everyone brings something, just like you all have noticed that she has not. Take a look at how you coordinate your food-bringing efforts and make specific assignments. Or maybe you send a friendly generic reminder email that the group would love to sample everyone’s dishes and repeat the reminder verbally as you break from the event and plan the next one. Perhaps you could also figure out a way to offer people the chance to chip in funds to help cover the cost of the food, as long as you know ahead of time that plenty of people will still bring food in lieu of donating. Or offer her a chance to bring condiments or utensils and napkins if she doesn’t cook. It sounds like communication is in order here, either with a single person asking the person privately what she planned to bring next time or why she is reluctant to contribute or with a gentle reminder to everyone that bringing food is part of the expectation.

HELEN’S ANSWER: The host could ask her if she wants to bring something “this time.” And be ready to offer suggestions if she does not cook, like where to pick up a dish, or offer something very inexpensive, if you feel she cannot afford to bring something. There are all kinds of reasons that she might not be participating in the potluck exchange. Communicate with her to figure out why.

GUEST’S ANSWER: Kirsten Cash, speech-language pathologist and mother of four: What a wonderful way of enjoying your friendships! My suggestion would be to start using a website such as Sign-Up Genius for your gatherings. A site like this helps avoid having everyone show up with Swedish meatballs.

In your case, it would be a subtle and gentle way of nudging the delinquent friend to do her part. In the event that she does not sign up, whoever is hosting that quarter’s dinner could send her a message and say something along the lines of, “We haven’t had anyone sign up for [blank]. May I put you down to bring it?” Sign-Up Genius allows you to create fields for whatever items you wish: drinks, bread, dessert, entrée, plates, napkins, etc. Ideally, she will get the gentle hint. An alternative option would be to have the host send out a reminder email with a statement such as, “Please remember to bring enough to share with all! We typically have 20!”

If both of those efforts fail, you could then decide to either have a member of the group tactfully broach the subject with her OR you could simply let it go and chalk it up as being a part of who she is and enjoy her company knowing she must have a reason for not contributing. What the reason is you may never know nor do you need to know. If she is your friend, then, I am sure you love her regardless of her flaws.

Since 2009, Callie, Lillie-Beth and Helen have written this generational etiquette column. They also include guest responses from a wide range of ages each week. So many years later, Callie is 20-plus; Lillie-Beth is 40-plus and Helen is 60-plus. To ask an etiquette question, email

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