Our society sends mixed messages about hospitality. On the one hand, thanks to Pinterest and the proliferation of food blogs, we are inundated with photos of fancy dishes and gorgeous table settings in immaculate homes. The subtext hints that this is how true hospitality is practiced.
At the same time, there’s a plethora of articles encouraging us to let go of perfection and just invite people over. Probably the most popular example is “In Praise of 'Scruffy Hospitality'” by Robin Schreeves which has been shared on Facebook nearly half a million times. Similar articles include “Why True Hospitality Requires Imperfection” and “5 Rules for Hosting a Crappy Dinner Party.”
In these anti-perfection, pro-scruffy-hospitality articles, the author typically starts by confessing how she used to hold impossibly high standards for hospitality. If she was having guests over, she took a whole day off work to scrub her home till it gleamed and cook up a Michelin-starred meal. Gradually, however, she came to realize that it’s the guests and conversation that truly matters. She lowered her standards and great happiness ensued for all.
Sounds ideal, right?
I’m not convinced.
In her “Scruffy Hospitality” article, Schreeves describes how she had an epiphany moment when a fellow mom encouraged her to approach hospitality from the question: "Are they coming to see me, or are they coming to see my home?" Schreeves seems to think the answer is the former. I disagree. When you invite people into your home, it’s true, they are coming to see you. However, they are most definitely also coming to see your home. That’s a significant component of the visit and should not be neglected.
I concur wholeheartedly that social media sets an unattainable standard for hospitality, but I’m also concerned that these anti-perfection articles may encourage hosts to be lazy and inconsiderate. We need to strike a balance.
Let me share a few examples of hospitality gone wrong: My husband, kids, and I once encountered another family who spontaneously invited us back to their house for lunch. That seemed very kind of them – except they didn’t have any food in stock. After we arrived, the men went out to the supermarket which took nearly two hours. My husband ended up paying for the groceries. While we waited for them to return, I was not offered so much as a glass of water for refreshment.
In the car ride home afterward, my husband and I got into an argument – which, honestly, was nothing more than the fact that we both felt exhausted and wrung out. If your hospitality causes an otherwise happily married couple to have a fight, then it’s too scruffy.
This family should have been less spontaneous and issued us an invitation for a future date when they could have at least pre-purchased some food.
On a different occasion, I showed up to a dinner invitation only to find the remnants of my hosts’ previous meal still on their dining table. There was nowhere for me to sit because all their sofas and chairs were covered in old newspapers and laundry baskets. I had a painfully awkward moment when I wondered if it would be more rude to ask permission to clear off a chair (and thus draw attention to the mess) or to just go ahead and do it.
I should note that this dinner had been arranged weeks in advance and I had texted earlier in the day to confirm my arrival time. Couldn’t they have spared a minute to move their lunch dishes to the kitchen sink?
Hospitality is more than just having people over and feeding them something. It means showing you value them by making a minimum of preparation for their visit.
Please don’t think I have impossibly high standards. One instance of hospitality that I remember very fondly comes from when I was still single. I was invited for dinner by a married couple. We all arrived at their house straight from our various offices at around the same time, so they hadn’t had much chance to prepare. They just quickly whipped up a simple pasta dish from their pantry and for dessert we shared some ice cream I had brought. We sat at their table and chatted over a tea light. Our dinner would definitely not be featured on Pinterest, but, years later, the memory of this couple’s kindness still warms my heart.
We all know that social media projects an unrealistic image of perfection – and that applies to hospitality as much as to any other area of life. Maybe the best approach to social media’s gorgeous photos is to take them as an inspiration. If your table is usually bare, add a candle or a bouquet for beautification. There’s no need to make a fancy centerpiece.
It’s fine to lower your hospitality standards a little. But, please, don’t lower them too far.
[Image Credit: Pixabay]
Emma Freire is a writer living in Sao Paulo, Brazil. She has also been published in The Federalist and The American Conservative.