Imperfectly Perfect Hospitality

Once upon a time before my life became total crap, we used to enjoy entertaining quite a bit. In fact, over the years I have had many people comment on how welcome they always felt when they came into my home. I had the knack for hospitality, they would say. Really, I just have a gift for offering people free food and drink in exchange for hanging out with me.

Now, before you get the wrong idea, I would like to point out my well documented flaws as a housekeeper and the equally well documented excess of children continually spilling things on the carpets in my home. (The other day Olivia put a wad of toilet paper on the floor next to my desk, sat on it and pee’d. True story. There’s a reason the dog walks around licking the carpets.) I mean, I have no chance of getting my 15 minutes of fame by being featured on Hoarders or anything, but suffice it to say that there’s crap on the top of my refridgerator, my carpets are stained and lawn is a mess. I’m not perfect.

The reason I bring this up is because I recently came across someone saying the same thing I hear quite often regarding hospitality: “I would really like to have people over, but I don’t feel like I can because my house isn’t in good enough shape.” There seems to be a perception that hostessing is the purview of Martha Stewart and other perfectly coifed and cleaned human beings. But here’s the truth: our imperfection are part of our hospitality.

When we reject our own imperfections, we are telling others that we will reject their imperfections as well. We we are imperfect – and even more importantly, comfortable with our imperfections – we are telling others that it’s OK for them to have their own imperfections. By letting our own messiness peak out, we are letting others know that it’s OK if they have some messiness following them around too. Perfection feeds our own egos, which is fine if that’s what you’re going for – getting other people to look at you in awe and with a little jealousy so you can feel OK about yourself. But if you want to be other-focused, imperfection is the way to go. (So sayeth the woman who couldn’t keep her closets clean if an Al Queada operative strapped a bomb to her chest.)

The other secret to hospitality, I think, is to make room for other people. There is a tendency to treat entertaining as a performance one puts on for our guests. I run around preparing, fixing, wiping, taking coats, passing drinks and all the rest while my guests watch (presumably in awe). Our guests become an audience to our performance as hostess. Which isn’t what hospitality is about. One of the things I always do is have a few little jobs to pass out. It sounds like the opposite of being a good host – to be handing out work to the guests. But people like to help. Everyone likes to feel like they’re on the inside, in the middle of things. And being asked to shred some lettuce or grab that dish from the oven or put those plates over there allows that to happen. Instead of the gathering being divided into hostess performer and guest audience, you get a team vibe. People relax and laugh and chatter rather than standing around awkwardly with their drinks asking about your new vacuum cleaner.

At it’s core, I think that’s what being hospitable is about – making other people feel welcomed and accepted. Letting them know that you are glad that they – and not some better, more beautiful, more successful or worldly person – is there. We live in a very inhospitable world, I think. We walk around feeling judged and excluded and intimidated by images of perfection that assail our every waking moment. And that is why learning the art of hospitality is so important, I think. We need experiences of feeling welcomed, accepted, enjoyed and included. So please, if you’ve ever found yourself saying, “I’ll entertain more when the carpets are replaced and the weeds are conquered and I learn French cooking”, stop it. Let it go. Perfection doesn’t breed hospitality – your imperfections are much better suited to the job.

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3 thoughts on “Imperfectly Perfect Hospitality

  1. A Japanese man prepares to honor a highly respected guest with a tea ceremony.

    He cleans his house meticulously, trims his garden, sweeps the path.

    Then, since this is a big occasion, he asks his neighbor, an acknowledged master who has been observing these preparations over the fence: “Have I got this right?”

    The neighbor climbs over the fence, goes to the pile of raked leaves and scatters a handful on the path. “Perfect,” he says.

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  2. We were trying to look up acquaintances in Montreal and not having much success. i realized that we were near the home of a couple that I had talked to on the phone, once, a year earlier. It was pretty close to dinner time, but I thought we could check if they were home and make arrangements to come back for a visit later. They would have none of it. They invited us in, sent their 10 year old daughter to the corner store for a loaf of bread and some tomatoes and served us tomato sandwiches. (Need I mention that they did not have a well stocked pantry?) This happened 25 years ago and still stands out in my mind as the best example of pure, untainted hospitality we have experienced. They weren’t interested in making an impression, they were interested in us.

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    • Cool story! I have heard from a lot of people that we Americans don’t do hospitality so well. We’re too status and image concious. But like you say, real hospitality makes a lasting impression!

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