Mainstream culture encourages a tight focus on self. That focus can feed separation from others, and isolation. Both those are tied to depression, very common in the U.S., especially during the holidays.
But hospitality — both the giving and receiving of it — is a potent antidote to isolation and depression. It makes us rich in what matters.
How can we take hosting in stride? As a part of everyday life? This is sometimes called radical hospitality. My husband Thor and I embrace this kind of radicalism.
The other Sunday we threw our 11th Annual Holiday Open House. About 30 colleagues and friends came over. The house buzzed with joy and fellowship. And I had spent the morning of the party happily writing this piece (actually I revised it from a summer 2013 version) while Thor slept in. We didn’t stress, nor overspend. Here is our approach to hospitality.
1.) Let go of perfectionism. Our place does not need to be impressive, or decorated for the holidays, or even super clean. We sport a single holiday decoration: a fresh evergreen wreath on our door. We do pick things up. And we did clean, some, before people arrived. But our focus stays on the folks, not on the impression we’re creating.
2.) Don’t assume hosting equals heavy spending. While entertaining can be costly, you can decide it won’t be. Choices like alcohol, meat, dozens of guests and a search for status are what skew hosting expenses. Host in a way that’s affordable to you. Otherwise you’ll be tense. Thor and I never go into debt for a party. (Or for anything else, as a general rule.)
3.) Ask your guests about themselves. Listening is the true food that keeps relationships alive. “How is your job search going?” “Is your mom out of the hospital yet?” “Where did you find that beautiful dress?” “How is that new song you were writing coming along?” Our interest is the greatest gift we can give people. It makes them want to be here with us. Our striving to impress them does not.
4.) Consider name-tags as icebreakers. Hosts can’t make every introduction. With nametags, ask people to answer, under their names, a question like: Where did you meet the hosts? What is your current passion? Your best or worst holiday experience? Your pet’s name? Your pet peeve? These start the conversations that are the fabric of connectedness.
5.) Shy guest? Ask him or her for help with a specific task. This creates involvement and connection without having to make small talk, which is not everyone’s strong suit.
6.) Serve food that is tried and true for you. Don’t create stress by trying a complicated new recipe for company. We had my lifelong friend Cindy over for dinner once. It was a work-night — not ideal, but the only night she’d be in town. I made enchilada casserole ahead of time, the dish I’ve been making since 7th grade cooking class. Not fancy-pants in the least, but Cindy loved it. Most importantly, I was able to give her my full attention that one night of the year I got to see her.
7.) Maybe don’t worry too much about RSVP’s. We definitely need RSVP’s for weddings and formal plated events. And we need to feel sure that some people are coming to whatever we’re hosting. But lots of people don’t RSVP anymore to informal events. And even when they do, plans and health change so that the data we receive contains false positives and false negatives.
When we first started throwing our annual holiday party in 2003, I earnestly counted every RSVP as it came in, thinking the exact number of attendees was terribly important. Over time I realized we usually have about 26-30 attendees in any event. So I stopped counting RSVP’s and hosting became more fun.
8.) Remember the invitation may be an end in itself. A couple of summers ago, a colleague from Southern Oregon mentioned he was coming up to Portland, where I live, for the Blues Festival. I like him (OK, I admit I like most people, which may be one reason I’m such a frequent hostess). So I emailed him: would he and his fiancee like to drop over for a drink? He thanked me repeatedly for the invite, and even though coming over didn’t work out, my connection with him got strengthened just through the offer of hospitality. Our next work meeting was more productive than ever.
Thor and I received this email the next day from Walt M.:
“Thanks so much for a wonderful open house. I enjoy so much visiting with you and your friends. The conversation is always so stimulating. I feel that collectively we are making the world a better place. This is just the kind of inspiration I need for the dark days of the Winter Solstice.”
What is your best tip for building relationships via hosting? What means the most to you as a guest when you attend a get-together?