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Departure etiquette: Who decides when to leave a party?

Dear Mr. Smith: A guy recently took me to a party. It got late; people started leaving. All our coats were upstairs on a bed. Our hosts were standing and chatting with us and I could tell they wanted us to leave. But still my date wouldn't go up and get our coats. I had to go do it. I was mildly irritated because I thought a gentleman would have made the effort. Am I being old-fashioned?

It sounds to me as if this wasn't an issue of effort or self-sacrifice at all; it didn't have anything to do with fetching the coats. He just wasn't ready to leave yet. You were thinking about the coats because you wanted to leave, so the coats became something symbolic to you.

Now, if you had taken his arm and stroked the back of his neck and murmured into his ear, "I would like to leave now," he could have been reasonably expected to snap to it and leap up those stairs two at a time. Only if he ignored a direct request could he be said to be unhelpful. And of course if you tell him you're ready to go and he responds cheerily, "Sure, you go get the coats," then he is an unabashed cad.

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But, really, I sense this irritation is about the much deeper and more common problem of who gets to say when you leave. This is an issue that plagues almost all couples. There's always one partner who gets bored or tired first, and there's always one group of friends that interests her more than it interests him. My guideline is this: If it's late, and you've been at a party for a couple of hours, then whoever wants to leave gets to call the shots. The tired or bored person always gets emotional priority, provided he/she has put in the mandatory minimum hour. There's nothing more silently aggressive than making your wilting partner wait for you to run through your entire stock of bons mots over your eighth brandy. It's just mean.

However, the system is open to abuse. People who are feeling grumpy and displeased with their partners have been known to ruin evenings by announcing within the first hour that they are uncomfortable and they have to leave, now. If you really want to cause maximum damage with this weapon, save it for your partner's business-related parties, the ones where his boss is in attendance, where he really has to make a good impression for the sake of his career, or for big family events, ones for which someone's mother has been cooking all day.

The recipient of such a selfish hissy fit still has no choice: On a date, whoever demands to be taken home must be taken home. There is no point to staying if your companion is in a bad mood anyway: Your night is just going to get worse. Suck up your embarrassment, make an excuse, endure the silent cab ride home together; you will find out what you are being punished for eventually.

It's because this weapon is so massively powerful, and because it will always trump business obligation, always demand a capitulation, that I suggest - no, I plead - that it be used sparingly. It is a nuclear retaliation for what is usually a minor irritation. Generosity and patience will be more satisfying in the long run. This goes for both sexes.

Ask Mr. Smith a question, or view the complete archive, at Russell Smith's online advisory service,

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