The other day, my friend Jane was invited to a 40th birthday party. The time printed on the invitation was 7.30pm. Jane went off with her husband, expecting a merry evening of wine, food, and song.
By 9.45, everybody was having great fun, but no food had appeared. Jane and David were restless. Other guests began whispering that they, too, were starving. But no one wanted to leave, just in case some food was about to appear. By 11.00, there was still no food, and everyone was completely off their heads. Jane and David left hungry and angry.
Their experience suggests that the words an the printed invitations need to be made clearer. Everyone reads and understands the invitations differently. Most of us would agree that 6.30 -8.30pm means drinks only, go out to dinner afterwards; 8.00pm or 8.30pm means possible dinner, but 9.30pm and any time thereafter means no food, oat beforehand, roll up late.
But this is not always the case. If asked to a students' party at 6.30pm, it is normal for guests not to appear before midnight, if at all, and no one cares. Being the first to arrive - looking eager - is social death. When my mother is asked to a party for 6.30, she likes to be them, if not on lime, then no later than seven. My age group (late thirties) falls somewhere between the two, but because we still think we're young, we're probably closer to student-time than grown-up time.
The accepted custom at present is confusing (混乱的), sometimes annoying, and it often means you may go home hungry, but it does lend every party that precious element (成分) of surprise.