Sunday, April 4, 2010

My Top Ten Tips for Being a Good Guest (Hospitality Congeniality)

Perhaps I was too frank when I explained to you, my students, that I hesitate hosting another end-of-the-semester social because I sometimes get my feelings hurt. That’s not something professors should admit, I imagine, which is the essence of the problem. When I’m your host, I’m obligated to follow a different set of rules than in the classroom, starting with it’s rude for a host to inform guests that they’re being rude. No way around it. Revealing that dilemma to some of you last week sparked a few examples of how your mothers handle this situation and a few pleas that you would like to learn etiquette rules. Responding to your suggestions and requests, I give you My Top Ten Tips to Being a Good Guest.

1. RSVP. Not only does your RSVP trigger necessary considerations of food, drink, table setting, seating, etc., but your reservation also says that you respect your hosts' time. You recognize that your hosts are planning this event and hosting it to welcome those who are able and willing to attend.  Sometimes, after you RSVP, your plans unavoidably change.  Call your hosts and explain.  But never, ever, bring along someone uninvited. No hosts like to greet an unexpected guest, wondering if he's some Raskol’nikov appearing at their door!
Rule number one: in hospitality code, the “R” in RSVP translates as respect.

2. Bring something to show your appreciation. You don’t have to spend any money as long as you don’t plunder the flowers on the hosts' porch. It’s fine to “go in” with others. Think Greek. Come with a gift to continue the reciprocity of being welcomed. (But leave home the wooden horse.) Bringing something says that you appreciate your hosts' efforts even before you've had a good time.

3. Be present in the moment.  We think of our table as our altar. Picture yourself visiting a small chapel and you need to use your cell phone. You simply go outside or into a non-sacred area.  Let me speak for myself. When I'm eating or conversing with someone who is texting, my first thought is how much more important that “conversation” must be than the one we were having in person. My second thought is that I too could find something more important to do with my time…and I’m about to! You see how this becomes an inhospitable mental script really fast? If that’s not the motivation you need, consider this experiment: A bunch of four year olds each faced one marshmallow on the table in front of him or her.  The group of 4 year olds was told that each could either devour their one marshmallow or wait a short time and receive two. Here’s what happened: 1/3 snatched their marshmallows; 1/3 tried to wait but gave in; and 1/3 waited 15 minutes and were rewarded with a second marshmallow. Fourteen years later, the 1/3 gratification-delayers scored an average of 210 points higher on their SATs than the others. (David Shenk, The Genius in All of Us, 113-114). For the sake of your future successes, learn to let that cell phone wait.

4.  Monitor your conversation so as not to offend. Unless you’re making fun of yourself, lay off the jokes, sarcasm, and innuendo. You don’t have to read much of The Niebelungenlied, Beowulf, or the Odyssey to figure out how quickly flyting can deteriorate to insult.

5. Respect the food. Let me begin with one prescription. If you can’t eat certain foods, alert your hosts when you RSVP. Something like…”You might want to know that I’m allergic to caviar.” “My religion (or other ideology) doesn’t allow me to eat ____________.” Don’t be shy. Your notification actually assists the menu planning and avoids embarrassment. Now, on to the proscriptions. If you know you’re not going to like a food item served, don’t take it. If it’s placed on your plate, you don’t have to eat it just to be polite. But whatever you do, don’t voice your objection. If you’re not sure, take only a little. By all means, experiment. After all, if you like it, there might be more! On the other hand, don’t graze the buffet table as if you’re at a mead-hall or you’re an Ithacan suitor. Finally, don’t ask for the leftovers. Remember old Mr. Carmichael who harmlessly asked for more soup, irritating Mr. Ramsay who annoyed Mrs. Ramsay? It would have been different if she’d offered him a second helping. So if you’re offered, take a reasonable amount, leaving some for others to take home. In short, the food—whether to your liking or not—is a gift from the hosts to you.

6. Volunteer to help. Maybe you can take coats to another room, clear the table, serve drinks, or monitor the music. Just ask. As one of your hosts, I confess that I tend toward the Mrs. Ramsay trap of micro-managing a gathering.  But as The Qur' an guides us, confession without atonement matters little.  That's why, last semester--some of my hubris aside--I recruited student helpers.  This semester, I will contine to recruit.  But even if I don't recruit you, please, still offer to help. Your generosity will be appreciated. Further, I promise to relax and enjoy myself so that you can also. Epicureanism, here I come!

7. Respect the cook. When the appetizers are cleared and the main course is served or secured (at a buffet), wait for the cook to sit down and begin the course. However, if the cook waives this privilege, feel free to dig in. The rule is simple: always wait unless directed otherwise. You’re the chorus, waiting for the choragus to lead you onward.

8. Dress appropriately. If your hosts are older, dress conservatively. Don't draw attention to yourself in a way that might make someone uncomfortable. Your hosts and the other guests don’t need to worry if you’re going to reveal yourself—front or back--when you bend over. Nor do they need to take up a collection so that you can afford to mend your tears and holes. You get the idea. I know very well that you might be accusing me, in particular, of being an ArsinoĆ©—a moralistic older woman who’s more jealous than contemptuous of youth. Maybe so. But Moliere includes her in his play because she is a type, that is, she exists. We all know her. And if she’s your host, it’s best not to aggravate her.

9. Enjoy yourself.  Some guests are a bit nervous--for whatever reason.  If you're such a guest, your hosts counsel you to picture yourself enjoying yourself:  As you walk through the tended yard and onto the flowered front porch into the cleaned house that smells of hours of cooking, be assured that everyone inside will be on his or her best behavior. Even though you may be a bit shy, tell yourself that you're going to have a great time.  Your hosts and their guests promise that we're not the De Laceys  and you're certainly no monster.  Come on in, introduce yourself to the students you don't know, mingle, eat, eat some more, and celebrate the end of the semester.  You deserve it!

10. Be grateful.

10A. Compliment the host and cook. Give one compliment. It can be about the house, the yard, the food, etc. It just needs to reflect that you noticed some effort afforded to you.  Here’s a non-example. “I just love the street that you live on.” Great, but that doesn’t exude your appreciation for being invited, prepared for, and taken care of. Pick something that focuses on one of those aspects. My recent hospitality research makes me wonder if, with a little gratitude, Adam and Eve could have secured paradise--for them and us all.

10B. Follow-up with a thank-you. Think of The Qur’ an and Marcus Aurelius’s first chapter of Meditations. To be grateful is to be gracious. Not only does it please your host; it also distinguishes you.  A thank you note is a must. If you can’t mail one, email one. It doesn’t have to be gushy, but it should be sincere. Without a thank-you, your host assumes that afterward, you never gave a passing thought to the effort extended to you.  In her mind, you just ate and ran off.  True, she won’t pursue you. But she might harbor an Ahab-like thought or two.


I look forward to your next visit.  Come hungry and enjoy!

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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