Spending time with friends often involves an invitation to one another’s homes. Whether you’re the host or the guest, it can be embarrassing and downright awkward if a visitor accidentally breaks something.
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In a retail store, the standard “You break it, you buy it” policy often makes it clear what needs to be done to remedy the situation. However, it’s not so cut and dry at a friend’s house.
“Our homes are not retail stores,” said Jodi RR Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. “The guideline here is to heal the friendship.”
She said whether you spilled red wine on a white tablecloth or your child spilled grape juice on a white rug, you need to do your best to make it right. Instead of immediately springing into action, she recommended asking the host the best way to help, so you don’t inadvertently make it worse.
For example, if you try to blot a red wine stain with a white napkin, it will likely ruin the napkin as well.
In this type of situation, she said you need to offer to have the item cleaned, and follow through if the host accepts.
“If the host declines, you still need to do something,” Smith said. “A gesture such as ‘I’m so sorry’ flowers or a bottle of white wine — or white grape juice — with a note of sincere apologies.”
She said you should also offer to replace an item if something breaks. That is, if it is indeed replaceable and if you can afford to foot the bill.
Even if the host declines, she said you still need to do something that aligns with the situation.
“If a toy was broken and a replacement was declined, [make] a donation to a children’s charity or local school in their honor, along with [writing] a note of sincere apologies to the host,” Smith said.
If you’re the host in the situation, she said to accept the fact that these things happen and realize people’s feelings are more important than objects.
“Especially for a remorseful child, kindness wins the day,” she said.
As a host, Maryanne Parker, founder of Manor of Manners etiquette consulting, said it’s always important to be considerate and make your guests feel comfortable at all times.
“And as a matter of fact, a great hostess will spill her own glass of red wine on her 100-years-old tablecloth, just to make you feel comfortable when she sees that you spilled yours,” she said.
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Despite their best intentions, she said some hostesses are so concerned with the tidiness of the setting, that they forget to make sure their guests are at ease.
“Yes, the house will probably get messy and some glasses of wine might get broken or spilled, but that’s no reason to ruin everybody’s good time,” Parker said.
If the broken item is something meaningful like fine china given to you as a wedding gift from your grandmother, she acknowledged this can be very painful. However, she said it’s important to consider the circumstances and your relationship with the person who broke the item.
“Remember that the guest probably feels even worse than us — especially if she or he is aware how priceless the collection is,” Parker said.
She suggested putting items that mean the most to you aside — i.e., fine china with special memories — replacing them with something stylish, but less elaborate.
“When we are hosting an event our body language says it all,” she said. “If we are moody, unhappy and stressed, our guests will pick up the vibe, and the party will be ruined.”
If a guest breaks something at your home and offers you a sincere apology, Parker said it’s ultimately your choice whether to accept it. However, if you do, this should be the last conversation on the matter.
“Bringing the topic back to our attention day after day or year after year is highly rude and inconsiderate,” she said.
Essentially, accidents happen and sometimes things break. A good friend will always do their best to rectify the situation, while a generous host will be understanding and take the incident in stride.
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Last updated: July 14, 2021