Hospitable Hosts, Gracious Guests


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"Mankind is divisible into 2 great classes: hosts and guests." -- Sir Max Beerbohm

Whatever happened to the joy of entertaining? Did we all get so burned out in the 80's that it's now become a drudge to host or attend an event when we'd rather be cocooning? Can the Republican Congress really revive the economy, and will that herald a return to the glamour of the Reagan administration that had Georgette Mosbacher bringing the real stuff out of the vaults? Who knows? But, let's hope it's better than the mood that has pervaded the social scene for too long!

These days, rather than relishing the prospect of an event, any number of things run through the minds of people whether they host an event or accept an invitation. Hosts and hostesses worry about the guest list, the invitations, the food, the music, and all the things - like the weather - that could go wrong and make their lives a misery. Guests wonder who else will attend, whether or not the invitation is worth accepting, what to wear, when to arrive to make the best or least noticed entrance, or whether to just send a check. Valid though these considerations may be, they are all somewhat self-serving (a chronic problem in the Nineties that keeps the demand for etiquette advice alive!). These trifles are the means, not the goal of entertaining.

The goal of entertaining is not the specific reason for the party, be it a new product launch or a birthday. The goal is to make others feel good - about you, a guest of honor, a product, a company, but mostly about themselves and the time they give you. That does require some planning and work, but that's part of the gift you give your guests. By exercising a bit of objectivity about one's function as a host or a guest rather than getting bogged down in minutiae, the details may well fall into place. And, even if they don't, it's still a more enjoyable way to approach the process. After all, only the host knows if everything went according to plan; the guests won't know or care unless the host turns it into an issue. A host's responsibility is to the guests, not to some agenda.

According to Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary, a host or hostess is "a person who entertains guests in his/her own home or at his/her own expense; a person who initiates or presides over any social gathering." To preside implies a degree of control, of responsibility. It's impossible to preside over a gathering when responsibility is surrendered to the guest, as happens all too often in a frustrated effort to please, especially at more intimate functions or weekend entertaining. The host or hostess must retain control over all aspects of an event. Empower yourself! See yourself as the captain of the ship, the master of the function! Anything less puts the burden of responsibility on the guest. Yet every horror story about being a host revolves not around the minutiae but around that person abdicating responsibility and turning into a doormat for guests who don't understand their role.

So what is the responsibility of the host or hostess? It's simply to make the guest feel at ease and as valued as possible, under whatever the circumstances, in an atmosphere of warmth and hospitality.

All the details only serve this one end - to give others pleasure, thereby receiving pleasure yourself. None of this can be accomplished without the human touch. Hosts and hostesses must be present and visible, not orchestrating from backstage or frantically cooking in the kitchen. Guests must be greeted and introduced to others and brought into the group to feel welcome and cared for, even at - especially at - the largest and most impersonal business functions. Without that human connection, even a perfect location, the tastiest food, the most elaborate flowers, and sublime music will not overcome the impression that an event is stiff and cold. But, like that disastrous party scene in the movie Betsy's Wedding, even a torrential downpour during a garden party may not dampen the spirits if warmth is there...and a sense of humor about life's little foibles is within easy reach.

The Basics of Sane Hosting

  1. Never issue an invitation you don't want to extend. The only absolute goal for an invitation should be the mutual enjoyment of guests and host/hostess.
  2. Pre-plan and prepare for good company, good food and drink, and a comfortable atmosphere.
  3. Don't be afraid to say "no" if the situation demands it. Every time a host or hostess wants to say "no" to a guest but acquiesces for fear of appearing ungracious, hostility toward the guest escalates.

All burden of responsibility does not lie solely with the host. Guests, too, must "sing for their supper." They should always convey through their manners and actions that they are honored by all that the host has done for them, and that the host's efforts have all met with success. Guests should mingle and meet other guests. Not only is it acceptable to circulate and introduce oneself, an overburdened host will be grateful that a guest has taken the initiative to be pleasant to and interested in the others. Social interaction should not be a mine field fraught with hidden dangers that may erupt into real explosions. Remember, any offense to another guest is a double offense because it also offends the host.

The Basics of Good Guesting

  1. Respond to an invitation, either by phone or by letter, within 24 hours.
  2. Cancel if you're ill or have a cold.
  3. Arrive punctually.
  4. Be positive and upbeat.
  5. Don't bring children or pets unless they were specifically included in the invitation.
  6. Always send a thank you note.

Perhaps one of the ways to revive the pleasure of socializing is to scale down the scope of the entertaining. Small, intimate cocktails or dinners as opposed to large galas make it a great deal easier to connect with the guests. Weekend entertaining, especially in the summer remains ever popular, particularily with the invitees. However, with weekend entertaining, whether it's a business associate or a close personal friend, the stress and strain escalate geometrically according to the length of time spent together and the number of people involved. Major weekends like Memorial Day, July 4th, or Labor Day take the worst toll on both host and guest. Here are some survival tips in addition to the basics of hospitable hosting and gracious guesting:

8 Rules for Sane Weekend Hosting!

  1. Always specify beforehand the exact dates for the invitation with clearly defined arrival and departure times.
  2. Plan, organize, and prepare for your guests ahead of time so you're free to enjoy their company rather than act as their cook and servant.
  3. Inform the guests in advance of the agenda and anything they should bring (eg. sporting equipment, formal attire).
  4. "Sleep in your guest room before any guest who's too polite to tell you what's wrong sleeps there." (Gloria Guiness)
  5. Explain the household schedule to the guests upon their arrival. An agenda posted on the refrigerator or left in each guest's room often helps. Remind guests of it should it become necessary. Never relinquish your command of your home!
  6. Allow guests time to themselves. Overplanning their time only exhausts them.
  7. Throw out guests who ignore the departure date.
  8. Don't overload on invitations. Be sure to allow some personal time and/or weekends for yourself.

15 Rules for Gracious House Guesting

Ben Franklin stated that "Fish and visitors smell in three days," while Eduoard Laboulaye claimed that "The first day a man is a guest, the second a burden, the third a pest." The poet Marianne Moore claims that "Superior people never make long visits." Even Miss Manners wrote, "The ideal guest room does not have a guest in it." Despite these misanthropic views of guests, it is possible to be a gracious guest and receive return invitations if you follow these simple, albeit demanding, rules for gracious guesting.

  1. Unless otherwise offered, make your own transportation arrangements for arrival and departure.
  2. Inform the host/hostess of your arrival time and means of arrival.
  3. Bring a house gift as a token of your appreciation or send one immediately after your departure.
  4. Adhere to the moral standards of the house.
  5. Bring the proper clothing.
  6. Adhere to the schedule planned by the host/hostess. Be a team player or a creative self-starter as the situation dictates.
  7. Don't expect to be entertained every moment.
  8. Don't use the host/hostess as a way-station for your other socializing. That's what hotels are for!
  9. Don't hog - hot water, cars, telephones, sports equipment, food.
  10. Respect the property of the host/hostess.
  11. Offer to help unless you're told a firm "no".
  12. Be neat and clean up after yourself, especially if sharing a bathroom.
  13. Don't discipline the host's children or pets.
  14. Depart when the invitation stated or when you said you would.
  15. If there is household staff, be sure to tip them if you've stayed overnight.

The glory, glamour and glitz of the 80's may be far behind us, but that's no reason to forego the pleasure of entertaining. By remembering what the responsibilities of our role as host or guest are, and by taking the focus off ourselves and placing it on the other person, trying to please the other person, we'll insure that the joy of entertaining doesn't fade from our lives.

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