Dear Helena,

Last weekend I went to a dinner party that started at 8. I had plans to go dancing later, but I assumed the dinner would be over by 11:30 and therefore I could be at the club by midnight. However, at 11:30 the host still hadn’t served dessert. I told him I had to go before dessert, and he looked annoyed. Is it rude to leave a dinner party early?—Social Butterfly

Dear Social Butterfly,

Premature departure is a downer for the other guests. If you’re off to a party, you may make them feel depressed because they don’t have as many invitations. If you’re leaving because you have to rise early, you may start others worrying about long commutes and morning meetings, so they end up leaving, too. You should always stay until dessert is over if you can.

There are only four acceptable reasons for leaving early.

1. Children and dogs. It’s OK to leave if you need to relieve your baby sitter. Children put such a damper on the social life that your host should be happy you came out at all. He should also understand if you must walk your dog, especially if you’re worried it will defile the carpet.

2. Compulsory morning commitment. A dawn flight is an acceptable excuse (especially if you haven’t packed yet). But note the word “compulsory.” In other words, you can’t sidle away because you want to wake up in time for your 7 a.m. spinning class—unless you’re teaching it.

3. Prior social engagement. If you mention preexisting plans at the time you accept the dinner invitation, it’s OK to double-book. But you shouldn’t make additional plans thereafter—unless they start a good four hours after the dinner begins (see below).

4. The four-hour limit. Four hours is long enough to run a marathon. It ought to be enough to serve a three-course meal. After all, when you accept a dinner invitation, you’re not agreeing to stay all night. If, after four hours, your host is still blowtorching the crème brûlée, it’s OK to skedaddle.

Whatever your excuse, you should mention it before the dinner party—either when you accept the invitation or in a phone call. If you tell your host during the evening, it might look as if you’re bored and are concocting an excuse to escape. Advance warning also means the host can pace the meal to suit your schedule (although he’s not obliged to do so).

You should have mentioned your dance plans when you agreed to go to the dinner. If you made your plans after you accepted the invitation, then you simply could have waited another half hour before gracefully saying good-bye.

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