Our relationships with others are central to our happiness, much more central than wealth or possessions. A large body of research has proven this (see this post on the peak of happiness in the U.S.), and it is foundational to the diamond-cut life I’ve been chasing and writing about since 2007. My husband and I love to experience community and nurture our relationships by having people over for dinner, parties, dinner parties and things as simple as hanging out on the front porch with our neighbors. Here is some of what I’ve learned about hosting.
1.) Let go of perfectionism. The house or apartment or yard does not need to be big, or nicely decorated, or even super clean. Picking things up is good, and if people coming over inspires us to put pictures up on the walls that have been sitting around for years, so much the better. But our focus needs to be on the folks, not on our stuff.
2. ) Don’t assume that hosting means spending a lot of money. I admit that entertaining can be expensive, especially if you’re having a lot of people over, and if you’re serving alcohol or meat. But host in a way that’s affordable, including inviting the number of people that’s right for you. Consider my cheapest, tastiest dinner menu. Or don’t do a meal at all, but just beverages and some simple snacks.
3.) Consider a potluck. That way, the cooking and food/beverage costs can be shared. My experience is that here in Portland, Oregon, all ages and income levels of people embrace potluck meals. (They’re not just for church socials or college students.) Potlucks also make sense in light of the fact that the hosts are doing the work of organizing the event, preparing their home for it and cleaning up afterward.
4.) Ask your guests about themselves. Most people are hungry to be listened to. Relationships and community thrive on active listening. “How is your job search going?” ”I remember your mom had been in the hospital; how is she doing now?” ”Where did you find that beautiful dress?” “How is that new song you were writing coming along?” Such questions mean a lot to people. The news of our lives are the threads that weave our social fabric together. Being a weaver and having a social fabric means asking interested questions.
5. ) Consider name-tags. These may involve an icebreaker. I realize name-tags may remind us of grade school or professional conferences. But again and again I find that they help people speak up and meet each other (the host cannot make every introduction). Besides names, name-tags can include answers to questions like: how did you meet the hosts? What is your current passion? Your pet peeve? Your pet’s name?
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 last Wednesday night, a work-night, but the only night she’d be in town. Excited to see and host her, I made an enchilada casserole ahead of time, the dish I’ve been making ever since Libby and I took Mrs. Stoltz’s cooking class in 7th grade. Cindy loved it, as a lot of guests have for four decades. (I’ve improved this dish from the original recipe. And I have to say Mrs. Stoltz failed to understand the sociable nature of cooking. Libby and I still feel indignant that she marked our four-girl kitchen down from an A to a B on a project just because we drank a toast with our plastic water glasses. So misguided of her.)
But I digress. I do think it’s great to be creative and try new foods, drinks and recipes. I’m just suggesting it’s best to do those for guests after, not before, we’ve gained confidence in how the new items will turn out.
7.) If a person is shy or just new to the group, 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.
8.) Don’t worry overmuch about head-counts and whether or not people can come. When we first started doing our annual Christmas party in 2003, I earnestly counted every RSVP as it came in, thinking the exact number of attendees was terribly important. I got frustrated by the many people who didn’t RSVP at all. Over time I realized we usually have about 26 attendees in any event, and I planned on that basis, and stopped worrying about the numbers.
On the more informal side, a couple of weeks ago, a colleague from Southern Oregon let me know he was coming up to Portland for the Blues Festival. I like him (OK, I admit I like most people, maybe that’s why I’m such a frequent hostess) so I emailed him: maybe he and his fiancee could drop over for a drink. Just a thought, I wrote. He thanked me repeatedly for the invite, and even though coming over didn’t work out, the connection with him got strengthened through the offer of hospitality. Our next work meeting was more productive than ever.
9.) Consider a short survey to find out what your guests would like to eat and do. My brother Jeff, his girlfriend Jen and her 13 year old daughter Michelle are arriving this afternoon from out of state for their first visit ever. My brother Mick, a fairly frequent visitor, is also here, and I wanted to plan meals and outings everyone would enjoy. I used Survey Monkey, which is free. If you’re interested, here is the survey I sent them. The answers quickly showed me lots of common ground, and helped me do grocery shopping and plan some activities.
10. ) I’d love to hear from you: What is your best tip for hosting people? Or, what means the most to you as a guest when you go over to someone else’s house?