Eight Tips For Radical Hospitality

By Thursday, December 18, 2014 4 0

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?

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  • Charles
    December 23, 2014

    Alison, thank you. This is great advice. I will be employing some of these techniques tomorrow and probably again several times over the years. One thing that I have been trying to do more of is ask people about themselves. Its so valuable just simply asking someone about their life, they open up and it makes the gathering so much more inviting to everyone. Also one thing that I hadn’t thought of is asking a shy person for help. That is probably one of the best ideas for helping a shy person open up I have ever heard. I am totally using it on my nephew this weekend. Thanks for everything, I love your blog.

    • Alison
      December 24, 2014

      Charles, I’d love to hear how it goes with engaging your shy nephew, etc. Glad you find my writing helpful!

  • Danielle
    December 20, 2014

    Great post!

    Our favourite way to host is to invite people over for board games. Mainly because we love playing games, but also because it suits my slightly shy personality to have something to ‘do’ while we socialise…and I think that works for a lot of other people who like playing games with us. Food usually makes an appearance, but it’s secondary to the games. Last time we threw together a filling salad and another gamer made a courgette soup. Nothing fancy at all, but it was all tasty and we were nourished and ready to get on with game playing. Sometimes guests just spontaneously bring some yummy snacks. A memorable time was when someone brought a hummus dip and some cut up carrot and celery…sometimes, we make no food plans and then we just take it in turns to prepare something out of whatever’s in the fridge and while the others are taking their turns in the game. People usually bring their own drinks, so the hosting is definitely low cost and stress.

    I have been trying to work on asking people more questions. I feel very awkward and shy doing it in social situations, but oddly I ask people an incredible amount of small talk type questions in my professional life, where I teach German business people English…and I do it really well professionally…I even take little notes about things that have happened/are going to happen to people and keep them in the class files so I can ask them about it in the next lesson..and I am more or less well-liked by my students. I just have this confidence professionally that I lack socially…I think it’s feeling in a position of authority in one but not the other..daft really…but I have been making a conscious effort to step outside of my comfort zone do it regardless of how it feels and noticing a little bit of progress.

    Anyway, keep up the great posts. I read them every week, even if I don’t comment, and enjoy them thoroughly!

    • Alison
      December 20, 2014

      Danielle, I love playing games with people, too. I agree that it’s great to have something to focus on together. Cards are especially good here.

      I think it’s normal to have confidence in our work-lives that we don’t have in our social lives. The arenas are quite different. In our work-lives it’s easy to focus on being of service. Our work helps us forget about ourselves, which can be a lovely thing, i.e. our self-consciousness is taken away, because this is not about us.

      But in our social lives, conversations can feel too personal, as if we are on-stage when we don’t want to be. That’s what makes a shared game so relaxing: you get to interact, while focusing together on something outside of yourselves. Connection, but no intensity or pressure. Wonderful.

      I love your tip, Danielle. Glad you are enjoying y weekly writing.