Friday, January 29, 2010

Hospitality Defined: Move over Amy Sedaris (Hospitality Congeniality)

  In  her book, I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence, Amy Sedaris begins with a welcoming opening letter to “[your name here].” The tone is personal and friendly as is the message. Unfortunately, Amy, I couldn’t disagree more with your philosophy of hospitality. Let’s take this one sentence at a time.*
#1: “Whether you live in a basement with the income of a ten-year-old girl or on a saffron farm in the south of Spain, the spirit of hospitality is the same.”  First, in what fantasy world does economics not impact hospitality?  While expensive caviar doesn't guarantee hospitality, stone soup kills hospitality every time.  Second, how exactly is the “spirit” of hospitality common no matter the culture? My travels have indicated the opposite. While the spirit of Irish hospitality is friendliness, the spirit of Turkish hospitality is curiosity. While the hospitality spirit in Germany is generosity, in England it’s wittiness. In fact, that’s one of the difficulties of travelling—trying to discern the national or regional spirit of hospitality. For example, you’re wasting your time smiling at the Germans in Dusseldorf. Better to accept the room upgrade with seriousness politeness. That example illustrates that the “spirit” of hospitality is often linked to the “face,” of hospitality, which changes even within countries. Travel to any Mediterranean country and you’ll likely experience a different face of hospitality along the coasts than deeper in the mainland. If you don’t believe me, compare your experiences in Venice with Rome (which is considered a Mediterranean city by most travel agencies).
#2: “It’s the giving of yourself, a present of you to them from me for us.” Expecting hospitality to be personal misses the beauty and practicality of hospitality. It’s not personal. It’s a cultural code. Why is that so important to grasp? Because cultural codes, like myths, are the great levelers of all things unequal—one’s economics, religion, gender, age, personality, appearance, etc. When my German host constantly scans the table to see if glasses aren’t empty and no one is excluded from the conversation, it likely has nothing to do with his feelings for me personally. Don’t fret. That’s reassuring. For no matter that I'm a miscreant ringing the doorbell, the code welcomes me and guides me toward collegial behavior crossing the threshold. And no matter what Byronic hero I'm stuck inviting, I must defer to hospitality codes.  Whereas if you're relying on my false friendliness, I'm likely to slip up, sneering, "Get over yourself."  If you're not convinced that in every case, hospitality triumphs over friendship, I have one word for you--"family." When we are hospitable to our family, it’s because the family hospitality code dictates our actions. It’s certainly not because we’re going to end the evening holding hands and singing “Kumbaya.”
#3-#4: ‘Hello, and I like you.’ This is what you’re saying when you invite somebody into your home, without having to hear yourself say it out loud.” Again, it’s not personal. I don’t have to like you when I treat you hospitably. Frankly, most of the time, I don’t. That’s why I’m inviting you, [your name here], to think of hospitality not as friendliness but according to the second Merriam-Webster definition of “congeniality”: “existing or associated together harmoniously.” As someone once said, "“Hospitality is making your guests feel at home, even though you wish they were.” Of course, this brings to mind Kant’s categorical imperative and subsequent maxims. For Kant, as you well know, laws (codes) must be applicable to and enforceable by all. (Feel free to write me if you're eager to talk Kant more extensively. But for now, I should probably stay on track.) My point is that hospitality codes through the ages have existed so that different and even unfriendly people can co-exist in relative peace whereas relying on friendship has often led to anomie. If you don't believe me, read Arthurian legends.
I am embarking on a research project that will help us understand variations of hospitality codes—from the ancient world to the postmodern world and from the East to the West. Until then, I’ve begun with Amy and I promise to give her outlook a fair chance.
So to recap…think of hospitality more like congeniality than geniality. Or to put it more concretely...Your partner announces a dinner invite from his homophobic boss. When you arrive, do you really want to rely on your host immediately liking you? Or wouldn’t you feel more secure if your host just kept it impersonally hospitable? Hospitality Morality may not like you, but it promises its guests that for every feast, it will keep the peace.
*The more you read Sedaris's book, the more you suspect, then, realize that it's tongue-in-cheek.  However, you wouldn't realize that when you're reading the opening letters to her narratees.  I say, she wrote it and it's fair game for the serious critical review that Hospitality Morality always promises to deliver.
Special thanks to for the Amy Sedaris book recommendation.
Sedaris, Amy.  I Like You: Hospitailty Under the Influence.  New York: Warner Books, 2006.

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"One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well." - from A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf