For our first-ever advice column: what to do when hosts insist that you do nothing.
What is one to do about a hostess/host that almost seems too accommodating? Where after a day or so of "Oh, no, nothing you can do to help but just sit and chat with the others" and "Get away from those dishes!" leaves me feeling as though I don't appear competent enough to make scrambled eggs and, at the same time, guilty for not doing anything. Is it better to have the back-and-forth, "Oh, please I insist" conversation and shoulder my way to the sink, or should I actually listen to the host/hostess and focus all my attention on conversation with other guests while of course being extremely gracious?
Signed, Idle Hands
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Etiquette, in its rule-setting, has betrayed us. It has given us strict edicts to follow (no white after Labor Day, put your napkin on your lap, write thank you notes always, and so on). Etiquette tells us: Do the right thing and you will succeed in being an appropriate human. This is reassuring for those of us fraught with anxiety over being a gracious and well-behaved guest.
It also completely ignores the fact that every host and hostess is different.
The central issue to your conundrum, Hands, is the general assumption on the part of the guest that he or she is imposing on his or her host—that we are some sort of bother. Since we are eating their food, demanding their attention, drinking their wine, and maybe even dirtying their freshly laundered guest sheets with our dead skin and sweat, we must do some sort of penance, must carry our weight, must contribute something of high value, as if this person’s home were some sort of kibbutz.
And we should certainly try! It is a widely held belief that reciprocity is important. It is nice to do nice things for those who are generous to you and to try to lighten their load, to make their world a happier place. But!
But. Every host is different. And as a guest, it is not only important that you clean up after yourself and be kind and thoughtful—you also have to meet them where they are and respect their wishes, even if that means sitting on your hands when all you want to do is jump in and scrub a pot or four.
Consider this: Your host might really want to do the dishes, and for a number of different reasons! Maybe they are one of those freaks who truly loves dish-doing, the satisfaction of clearing away grime, the neat stacking of plates, the transformation of mess into order.
Or maybe they really just want you to relax! Maybe they derive great pleasure from the act of hosting, from generosity, from giving you a respite from your own household duties.
If you’re like many of this site’s readers and you have a hard time standing in a kitchen and not doing something active, you can always leave the room. Or, put your effort into having a lively and rich conversation with your host as he or she works. Pull your weight by entertaining, by being a friend.
There are other options, too. If you’re staying for a few days and have a mode of transportation, head to a local bakery or farmers market and pick something up for a meal or a snack or the pantry: baked goods, pickles, jams, something your host wouldn’t buy him or herself. Or go rogue with your offerings! Play an instrument? Why not give everyone an after-dinner serenade? Why not.
Find nontraditional ways to contribute that will allow your host to host the way they want. Sit back and relax and enjoy the great luxury of being a guest. And remember that this kibbutz is not all about you.
What would you recommend? Give us your two cents in the comments.