The other night we had about a dozen people round for dinner. About half the guests knew one or two of the others, but mostly they were meeting for the first time, and it turned out to be one of those glorious evenings. Within minutes of everyone arriving, avid conversations had begun, even between strangers – and as the night moved on there was much laughing, boisterous disagreement, delighted and intense seizing upon common interests, entertaining stories, thoughtful discussion, the works.
Afterwards, S and I tried to work out what it was that had made the evening work so well. We can take credit for some judicious selection – a good mix of personality types and so on, and I think the fact that lots of people were meeting for the first time gave it an edge of animation that fades into comfortable but lower-energy ease when old friends eat together.
But mostly, I reckon, it was because everyone there knew how to be a great guest. We are blessed with socially dexterous friends who know how to be entertaining, how to give and take in conversation, how to raise riveting topics, and how to make new people feel welcome. When you have people like this at your table, hosting a dinner is a breeze. All you have to do is provide a space for it.
In Love & Hunger I wrote a chapter on how to be a host – because I have seen people get so stressed out about entertaining that they can’t enjoy it – in which I asked various friends for their views on what goes into making entertaining at your house work well. And early in that chapter I hinted that there were also responsibilities as a guest, but I never really got around to that topic.
Off the top of my head, when I think about being a guest at someone else’s house there are only a few obvious essentials:
- show up on time or phone if we’re going to be late
- don’t arrive empty-handed
- make an effort to dress reasonably well
- make an effort to be conversationally energetic
- have a good time
- don’t refuse any offered food and try new things
- thank the cook!
- make sure my part in any argument is good-natured – this has been difficult at times!
What else is your duty? I never offer to wash the dishes, do you? I never allow people to clean up in my house and so I don’t offer in theirs – but I do clear plates or help bring plates or people to the table. I do sometimes take flowers, but some people say that’s a bad idea. We always take wine, of course. Can you start a raging argument? I love a heated discussion – more in observation than taking part – but at what point does it get out of hand, and whose responsibility is it to hose things down? And turning up on time is easy, but what about going home? What if you’re exhausted – are you allowed to nick off straight after dinner? And how do you know if you’re outstaying your welcome?
Would love your views on these things and more – and specially your disaster stories. What makes a great dinner guest? Are there people you will never have to your house again? Why? And what about the ones you always want to be there – what makes them so welcome? Come on, spill.