Hostessing, if it may qualify as a ‘pastime’, is one of my favorites.
Not only did we supply a delicious meal, but there was enriching, lively conversation to boot. Then, the evening would invariably be capped off with a game of cards and music performances by my sisters and me. The whole event was a true experience, each aspect carefully selected.
I still love hostessing ‘by design,’ with great care and intentionality invested in all the components of my guests’ experience in my home.
Here are some courtesy tips that I think enhance a guest’s comfort and pleasure (which, it goes without saying, should be a host or hostess’ primary goal).
1. Always provide some context to your evening, so that your guests can anticipate the flow. For example, when they arrive, say that they are to have a seat in there in the living room where you’ll ‘briefly chat over hor d’oeurves before going into the dining room for dinner. Then, you thought perhaps a game while eating dessert might be nice.’ At some point in this little description of the plan for the evening, take care to indicate how to find the restroom. It can be horribly uncomfortable to have to ask where the bathroom is (as if you’re a 2nd grader asking for permission to use it), especially if seated at the table. You want your guest to be able to simply say ‘excuse me, please’ like any other adult without needing to indicate why he is excusing himself.
2. Clear away jackets and coats from your coat rack, closet, or hooks. Make it appear simple and effortless to make space — literally & figuratively — for your guest. No guest likes to feel as if ‘you’re going to trouble’ for their sake. Any good hostess does indeed ‘go to trouble’ for her guest, but gladly so and always behind the scenes. That is true generosity and hospitality. To consciously choose to be ‘visibly working’ for the sake of your guest right in front of his nose vs. being adequately prepared is either just your ego looking for a boost via compliments from your guest (whereas the work you do behind the scenes may not be explicitly noticed, but will be intuitively felt and appreciated) OR you lazily trying to be less of a truly gracious host.
3. If you don’t have a separate powder room, be sure to ‘de-personalize’ your bathroom. Clear away hair products, lotions, make-up bags, etc. and store them away (or temporarily hide them in some out-of-the-way place such as under your bed). Take down your towels and robes and likewise temporarily dispose of them elsewhere. In a sentence, do what it takes to transform your private bathroom into a simple, declutter, de-personalized powder room while you have guests in your home.
4. Perhaps you normally have a paper towel stand in your bathroom anyway, but if not, supply one when you have guests over. It can make a guest feel awkward and uncomfortable to not know which hand towel to use (or to wonder how recently it was changed or how well the last person washed their hands before drying them on it). Providing paper towels helps guest still feel an appropriate and appreciated separation from family.
5. That said, a guest is not family! This doesn’t mean that things need to be uptight and stiff (which would be uncomfortable and displeasurable), but is does mean there is an element of formality that doesn’t habitually exist within a family. Family members go to the cupboards to find their own water glass; guests do not. Family members help themselves to food in the fridge; guests do not. You may wear your pajamas around family, but not guests. Etc. You automatically serve their food, clear away their plates, offer seconds and refill their beverages. If your guest is apparently uncomfortable being a true guest and insists upon helping or self-serving, a good host simply accepts this graciously.
6. One small, subtle, yet significant aspect of relative formality when guests are around is everyone wearing their shoes. In many regards, it’s a useful comparison to think of a business meeting. You wouldn’t go in just socks or barefoot in a conference room and neither should anyone be without their shoes in a host/guest scenario. The only times this default expectation could/should change would be a) during the winter or other inclement weather, when people rightfully anticipate removing their wet, muddy, salty & snowy shoes or b) if you’ve given them advance notice of this necessity simply because it’s your preference (maybe you have pure white carpet). Because of the weather or your advance notice, guests will take care to not wear socks they’re embarrassed of (mismatched, tattered, holey, etc.) or to have dirty or stinky feet once taking off their sandals, etc. Of course, you may also make the offer to your guests to keep their shoes on or take them off — however they are most comfortable; if you go this route, always follow suit — if they opt to remove their shoes, remove yours, too.
7. Have all beverages & food, and any other desired resource (games, movies, photo albums, etc.) at the ready before the guests’ arrival. Never offer to go get them tea or a snack or what-have-you after they’ve arrived. Have all of these items visibly on display, ready to be enjoyed. If your goal is to serve your guest (which it should be), s/he is much more likely to say ‘yes’ if you ask ‘may I pour you tea?’ than if you still need to go make it. Similarly, have water simply waiting for your guests already and then say ‘we have red wine, white ale, juice, seltzer, (etc.) — what may I get for you?’ Your goal as host is that your guest never need ask for anything because you’ve anticipated all possible (non-extraordinary) needs.
8. Two important aspects of anticipating needs are to always give your guest the best of what you have and to explicitly check-in with them, that they are comfy & happy. If some china is chipped, the guest gets the unchipped china. If some chairs are more comfortable than others, you take the worst for yourself. I also try to mention to my guests that they may remove any number of pillows from their seat if they’re uncomfortable; I offer to take them away for them and then bring them to another off-limits room (e.g. my bedroom) where I have also unwanted items (e.g. from the bathroom). If a given seat at the table affords the best view of the room or out the window, you give that to the guest. If the guest says s/he is hot or cold, you adjust the thermostat regardless of your preference and then add or subtract your own clothing layers in order to compensate as necessary.
9. If your guest brings a hostess gift (I hope so!), take care to not only say something kind about it but to also make immediate mention of it to any others hosting with you and then place it in some position of honor. That is, if they brought you flowers or a plant, clear away whatever else you may have had front & center on your coffee table and place the gift there. Don’t immediately put wine or chocolates into the pantry, but leave them conspicuously set out on a table or counter in a prime location vs. tucked away or otherwise cast aside. Of course, if food or beverage was brought, you don’t need to feel obligated to open into it and share it with your guests (no proper guest would expect this anyway); but you can, of course, do so if that’s what you sincerely want.
10. Talk about topics familiar and comfortable to your guest, play only games that your guest is well-suited to, etc. Try in all things to never put your guest on the spot or in the ‘hot seat’. It’s dinner, not an interrogation. Pick conversation topics (or games, etc.) that put your guest in the best light possible — where your guest can shine as being intelligent, creative, kind, etc. Ask engaging ‘tell me more’ sort of questions to encourage your guest to do the majority of the talking and so that he feels as if you’re getting to know him on a deeper, meaningful level. Of course, share your two cents or your similar story, but never in a ‘one-upping’ way or in any other fashion that might cause your guest to feel embarrassed. Your goal is to have your guest leave feeling truly seen & understood, and also like the most interesting person on the planet. If gracious hosting is your goal, you will also feel personally satisfied if you’ve achieved this goal even if you don’t necessarily feel as if the guest got to know you quite so well or thinks you’re the most interesting person on the planet. He likely thinks that was one of the best guest experiences that he’s had and that you are the perfect host. Hooray!
BONUS: Here’s #11: Make your primary focus be spending time with your guests. Clear the table, if necessary (or move into another room), but don’t then spend the next 45 minutes washing the dishes or cleaning the kitchen all by yourself while everyone else is enjoying themselves (take care of any food that would spoil, but that’s it!). Remember: all work is behind the scenes — in this case, after the guest is gone. To busy yourself with cleaning makes guest feel uncomfortable, makes them feel as if their presence as guests stresses you out or burdens you. Also, you don’t want to passively aggressively communicate that you’re eager for your guest to leave. Having boundaries is more than fine (if you didn’t communicate upfront how long the event was supposed to last [<– recommended], then you can still explicitly communicate that you need to call it a night), but, just ‘say no’ to passive aggression. Ever.
Of course, so many details of hosting are changed dependent on the exact circumstances. What I’ve described above in my mind applies to a new guest situation. Once you’ve become friends with someone, there is less formality. For example, perhaps taking off or leaving on shoes isn’t as important and everyone can make whatever choice is most comfortable for them personally. Or maybe it becomes natural that the ‘guests’ help out with the meal or clearing the table. Certainly you wouldn’t expect a hostess gift anymore, or at least not every time (you presumably take turns going to each others’ homes anyway).
What are your thoughts? Do you think these 10 courtesies never go out of style? Are there others you would add?