Last week, I laid out three principles to bear in mind as you prepare for new guests. First, make invitations personal. Second, keep your plans simple. Third, embrace imperfection. Now let’s assume it’s party time. I consider this the moment of truth. Here’s how it’s done.
- Be attentive.
The real reason to keep your arrangements simple is so that when your guests arrive, you can pay attention to them, instead of the hollandaise sauce tragically curdling on the stove. Too often I have found myself mid-panic about some culinary pseudo-catastrophe when the doorbell rings, whereupon I admit guests in a distracted tizzy. The poor newcomers stand on the ironic “Welcome” mat, wondering what to do with themselves while I continue the damage control.
Months ago, I attended a cocktail party with an impressive menu of libations. I knocked on the door, then waited. At last, a fellow guest opened timorously, offering neither her hand nor her name. She was busy looking around as if to ask other bewildered guests “Am I allowed to let in this solitary little stranger?” In retrospect, that part of the evening was oddly reminiscent of a college house party. The rest was not.
I found the hostess in the kitchen, laboring over one exquisite concoction after another. There she remained for the better part of two hours. My Sidecar was delectable and far more elegant than me. As an outgoing person, I made several agreeable acquaintances, but that would not have been so easy for a shy guest or just a regular Jane flying solo. Our hostess’ introductions would have been invaluable. Besides, I think we were all there to celebrate her, not just fine spirits. The highlight of the evening wasn’t my cocktail at all, but the long-awaited arrival of my generous friend in the living room to put her feet up and chat away the remaining minutes of the party.
There is another way. The moment your first guest arrives, all tasks give way to his primacy. Any non-essential preparations still unfinished will just have to stay unfinished. The time to fuss about details is done. Instead, immediately greet each guest with a smile, a kind word, and both hands free for an embrace or a warm handshake. Your time is theirs now.
Naturally you may absent yourself briefly to stash coats or to fetch beverages, but if you insist on mixed drinks for a large party (over-achiever), make a few pitchers in advance. Alternatively, set up the bar somewhere within sight of the door, so that you can chat as you mix those Manhattans. If food still needs to be prepared or the table set, guests may offer to pitch in. Let them. Many people (or maybe it’s just me again) find that busy hands make for easy conversation. Since we’ve previously agreed not to be fussy, don’t complain if your guest only coarsely dices the carrots.
2. Make guests comfortable.
Simply take care of them. Offer to stash their coats out of the way, along with handbags, umbrellas and hats. Suggest somewhere to sit. As soon as hands are free, offer drinks, then pour one for yourself too. The impact of these gestures isn’t just skin deep. Physical comfort is simpler than social comfort, but once someone knows that you genuinely care about the former, achieving the latter becomes easier.
Last year, I was personally invited to an intimate dinner party in a beautiful historic home. The hosts were well-educated professionals who overtly prided themselves on the elegance of their dwelling. (I admit that the wainscoting was lovely in the candlelight.) They were clearly proud of their own sophistication too. However, nobody suggested that I might want to put my large handbag down somewhere out of the way. Although I had arrived during the pointedly specified “cocktail hour,” nobody offered me a drink, not even water. There was an open bottle of wine on the coffee table, but no spare glass in sight. I wondered whether they had been expecting me at all! The omission was not noticed for about forty-five minutes, by which time I was seated at the dining table, still without a glass. I hear you: it would have cost my pride nothing to ask, but my hosts had deliberately set high expectations of social refinement. I was giving them a chance to prove themselves, because I guessed one snob deserves another.
This brings us to a more important point of hospitality and good manners in general. If you have trouble remembering it, then needle-point it on a pillow, hand-letter it and frame it on your wall, or tattoo it on your person.
Good manners are not weapons of class distinction. On the contrary, “manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others.”
That’s the wisest thing Emily Post ever penned. If you hope that your parties, your cuisine, your conversation or your decor will set you apart, then you’re doing it wrong. Loneliness, isolation, fear of missing out, and social anxiety are rampant. Don’t strive to set yourself apart. Strive to set others at their ease.
3. To that end, make your conversation inclusive.
It need not be impressive. Take an interest in your guests’ lives, past-times, experiences, and opinions. You are literally on your home-turf, with all the psychological advantages that entails. Your mission as host is to even out the playing field for anyone who may feel out of place. Make introductions between guests who’ve never met before. One basic strategy is to include the individual’s name, how you know her, and a simple, honest compliment. For example, you might say “This is Renee. We used to work together in Washington. She also taught me a lot about fashion,” or “Renee, this is Sean. I met him at that open mic last month, where he played the guitar. Very talented.” That gives your guests a little boost and a conversation starter so that if you have to leave them, they can hopefully continue to get acquainted. Give individual attention to shier guests. Encourage them to steer conversation into their areas of enthusiasm or expertise. Listen carefully and ask relevant questions. You’ll learn something new.
Just because your college roommate is there doesn’t mean you should spend an hour chuckling about obscure university traditions while everyone else bonds with their smartphones.
By the way, you should not even have that device on your person unless you expect a call from a late, lost guest, or the pizza guy. (Note: still a legitimate food source.) Remember, your time and your attention belong to your guests. For that matter, just because I’m a brazen extrovert doesn’t mean I should one-up everyone’s interesting stories. I plead guilty, and I’m sorry. I’ll work on it.
At that well-wainscoted, under-wined dinner party, the hosts were keen to compare world travel experiences. It was very like counting notches on a rifle, and just as off-putting for the only other female guest, who had never left the U.S. My feeble attempts to steer conversation towards her experiences were thwarted. I eventually surrendered to the temptation of reminiscence about a recent adventure. That whole unseemly episode came to a head when one young man declared “Let’s have a contest to see who’s the most interesting!”
My cheeks burn with shame at the mere memory. There are some parties that ought to send a good Catholic girl–and even this not-so-good one–straight to confession. (Bless me Father, for I been guilty of arrogance. Also, I quoted J.R.R. Tolkien out of context and used the word “creative” as a noun, twice.)
With no priest on hand, I instead launched an impassioned explanation of how entirely “basic,” I am. It was a clumsily done, but they haven’t invited me back to another of those pompous parties, so there’s that.
Enough of what not to do. The point is that successful hospitality is not stressful, elite or intimidating. Simply pay attention to your guests, prioritize their comfort and include them in conversation. Everything else is just a detail.
Opening your home lays the foundation for genuine, abiding friendships which are all-but unattainable elsewhere. We each need the encounters that hospitality fosters, perhaps in these times more than ever. Personally, I find something deeply gratifying about the comfort, conversation and relaxation of my guests. I hope you try it, and that it gives you this same happiness.