In the not too distant past, how hosts and guests were to behave toward one another was carefully regulated by custom and tradition. Dinner guests knew what was expected of them, and hosts were bound by well-accepted and even formulaic guidelines on how to make their guests feel welcome. A mother a generation or two ago might hand her daughter a copy of Emily Post’s Book of Etiquette (now in its eighteenth edition) to show how to exercise good manners, make polite conversation, write a formal reply to a formal invitation, even learn the format for a thank you note. (1) As late as the middle of the twentieth century, hostesses were taught to set a table quite properly, right down to the sterling silver shrimp forks and starched linen napkins. Though not quite like the dinner parties described in Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, propriety still reigned. And lest we sniff at formality in the twenty-first century, perhaps we should note the current popularity of the PBS series Downton Abbey in which the father, the earl of Grantham, thinks “informal” attire is a black tie and a dinner jacket. We do not have to look far to see that social customs have changed in our century and that “informal” means something very different.
So what are we to make of the cultural gulf between Emily Post and the drive to be more “real” and “authentic” in our social interaction? Today we often shun anything that smacks of the contrived or the traditional. Quite recently I was invited to a virtual shower where gifts were prescribed for the bride, whom we never saw. What are we to think about hospitality in the day when e-vites, text messages, and Twitter have replaced written invitations? Too often, Millennials think of etiquette that regulates hospitality as staid, stiff, and unnatural, out of sync with modern life. How then do we negotiate the reality of informality that sometimes slips into rude thoughtlessness in the name of freedom from convention? How do we encourage a new generation to practice and receive hospitality in the twenty-first century?
This is a challenging task that must begin with considering the basic and foundational principles behind hospitality and etiquette, no matter what the cultural norms of a given age or society. Particularly for Christians, hospitality begins with a realization that we have received grace. Gratitude for Christ’s love and mercy should impel us to be gracious to neighbors, fellow believers, and others we encounter. Peter reminds Christians, “Above all, love each other deeply” (1 Pet. 4: 8). (2) Proper etiquette is preeminently one expression of mutual love and regard that says, “I care about you and want you to enjoy our fellowship together.” Paul in his Epistles regularly includes hospitality as one of the Christian virtues that should characterize those who have received the grace of Christ. In Romans 12:13 Paul urges, “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.” The origin of hospitality is grace. The outworking of grace is love. The result is looking to the interests of others ahead of our own (Phil. 2: 3). This consciousness of grace and love motivates true hospitality. The calling is to show hospitality as gracious hosts and guests so that the love of Christ may show through us.
Mindful of Oscar Wilde’s comment, “The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on,” I will dare to give some practical advice that grows out of my experience with hospitality, both given and received. Primarily, it is important to show consideration as host and as guest. The best social occasions involve guests and hosts outdoing one another in showing consideration. Hosts make the guests comfortable and guests offer to pitch in to help. As a host I have enjoyed having people in my home, getting to know them, and having interesting conversation. Hospitality has always included food and drink around a table or even in a circle of TV trays. While hospitality usually, but not always, involves food and drink, the most important element of hospitality is lively conversation.
Face-to-Face, Not Screen-to-Screen
Conversation is central to genuine hospitality and personal, face-to-face communication in our social media age is a special gift and skill to be cultivated. A host’s responsibility is to facilitate conversation and to be sure that everyone is involved, especially if guests come from a variety of backgrounds. I have found it important to think about where to seat your guests and how I can help guide the conversation with questions. People enjoy talking about themselves and their experiences rather than being lectured by one or two people all night. Authentic conversation is not always as easy as it sounds, because good conversation not only involves talking but also requires listening. Christians should be good listeners because we are used to listening to the word of God. Listening carefully, with attention to how and why a guest is talking about a particular subject, requires skill and discipline, which isn’t easy to cultivate in our individualistic time.
Perhaps you have heard warnings against discussing controversial subjects around the dinner table. Etiquette guru Judith Martin (aka Miss Manners) is often asked why we should avoid controversial topics: “What are we supposed to talk about—the weather?” People often intend this question “as an indictment of etiquette as being either so draconian as to repress all but the blandest conversation, or so wimpy as to be unable to tolerate discussion on any but the least controversial subjects.” (3) Miss Manners writes that civil conversation requires keeping passions in check to involve a reasonable and civil interchange, characterized with a measure of goodwill. This is one way for guests to explore controversial topics by genuinely listening to and thinking about other points of view and perhaps drawing new conclusions that they have never considered before.
Guests and hosts have a responsibility not to dominate conversation and to be intentionally attentive to others. A pet peeve of mine today is when a guest will sit in the corner on her cell phone playing games, checking ballgame scores, or texting a friend. As a gracious guest, be attentive, unplug, and enter into the conversation going on. Put the smartphone down and leave Angry Birds at home. Miss Manners says that the true purpose of a dinner party is conversation. Enjoy making acquaintances into friends. Get to know others and build genuine relationships through conversation around a good meal.
Time Is of the Essence
In addition to fostering and managing conversation, hospitality requires mutual consideration and demands, making clear the terms of an invitation. Hosts should consider the needs of their guests. Give an adequate time for people to respond to invitations so they can arrange their schedules accordingly, plan for babysitters if they have children, arrange transportation if necessary. It often helps to give families with young children an option on time in case they need to arrange their child’s schedule accordingly to be home in time for the babysitter to make curfew or to put the children to sleep. As a host, be flexible. Let your guests know if children are included in the invitation or if it is an adults-only occasion. Guests should be aware that unless specifically invited, children are not included (nursing babies excepted). As a host I sometimes include children, and when I do, I put up the breakables, bring out the toys, secure the hazards under the kitchen sink, and make the children comfortable so their parents may enjoy the fellowship and conversation of the occasion. When only adults are included, conversation can be more meaningful and uninterrupted. Think about inviting a diverse group to encourage fellowship among people of different ages, backgrounds, and experiences.
Respecting the terms of an invitation means that guests need to respond promptly to the invitations in the prescribed manner—by prepaid reply card, a click of the mouse, a phone call, text, or e-mail. It is frustrating for hosts not to know how many people they are preparing to have in their home. “RSVP” is often ignored and guests fail to reply. Perhaps people today don’t understand the meaning of “RSVP”‘répondez s’il vous plaît, respond if you please.
Need I say, respond politely? Once I invited to Thanksgiving dinner a young man who had no friends or family in the area. He told me he would consider it if nothing better came along—he was not joking. He did come to dinner, and I repressed saying most of the things that ran through my thoughts! Failing to reply promptly and decisively is thoughtless, and I am sure that more than one parent has wound up paying for wedding reception dinners for people who did not reply or who were simply no-shows.
Respecting an invitation means demonstrating an awareness of time constraints. Notice the posted times for an open house. Be on time for dinner so hot food can be served to everyone at the appointed hour. Do not be one of those guests who overstay their welcome. If no times were specified on the invitation, be alert to signs that your host is ready to end the evening. Check for signs of fatigue on the part of your hosts or signals, such as their standing up and moving dishes to the kitchen. Once, a friend could not impress upon his guests that it was time to leave. He finally stood up and said with a big smile, “Please continue enjoying your conversation, and when you have finished, turn off the lights, and put the door on the latch. I am going to bed.” I have also been a guest where I needed to leave and found no opportunity. For parents, it is always possible to plead that the babysitter’s time to go home is approaching. If no children are involved, simply plead that you have an early start in the morning and should be getting home.
Gracious, Not Ostentatious
Concern for your guests should show in a variety of ways. As a host I try to put out the best that I have. My china and flatware may be from the Goodwill, but I should not be embarrassed to put it out on the table with care, with a few flowers from my yard and a centerpiece bowl of fruit. This does not mean that informal entertaining is precluded. Barbeques and paper plates can also foster good conversation. The important thing is to put guests at ease. My hope is that guests will appreciate my efforts, eat happily, and not complain about simple food. When my husband first started as a professor, we lived near the seminary. Students would frequently drop by, often around dinner time. I never hesitated to put out the best I had even if it was only soup and toasted cheese sandwiches. My guests were there for fellowship and conversation, and the meal was secondary, but it was the best I had to offer at the time.
I have always appreciated the concern expressed when my host calls to run the menu by me to be sure I do not have a peanut allergy, am not lactose intolerant, or a vegetarian. This saves embarrassing or worrying me as a guest and saves the host the frustration of preparing a meal that may go uneaten. It is also the guest’s responsibility to let the hosts know of severe allergies or dietary issues if they haven’t asked in advance. Some issues are the guest’s responsibility. Ultimately, it is my responsibility as a diabetic to manage my own blood sugar and not to expect the host to manage my diet for me. I believe it is my responsibility to select food items and portions of what is served that are healthy for me.
The Thank You Note
Finally, it is important as a guest to express gratitude to your host. Thankfulness should be a mark of Christian hospitality as much as consideration, conversation, and concern for one another. As a guest, it is thoughtful for you to take a hospitality gift—candy, flowers, or a pound of coffee. Afterward, a thank you phone call, e-mail, or text are possibilities, but I still think there is no substitute for a handwritten note, which is your personal, thoughtful response for a time of conversation, food, and fellowship. Giving thanks helps you to remember what you owe to your host, and as a Christian it helps you practice gratitude.
In a time when so much interaction takes place on social media and from a distance, showing and enjoying hospitality is a great gift that enables people to connect with one another through face-to-face conversation. We are personally enriched by those who invite us into their homes, and those who come into our homes for food and conversation, opening up our view on the world in a personal way that virtual interaction does not.
Footnotes:1 [ Back ] Today a mother could point her son or daughter to a Q and A blog hosted by the Emily Post Institute at www.etiquettedaily.com for a modernized version of etiquette.
2 [ Back ] All biblical quotations are from the English Standard Version.
3 [ Back ] Judith Martin, Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1982), 214.