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Host Etiquette

Host Etiquette

Helpful tips on making guests feel at home.

by

The mitzvah of receiving guests is considered a very important mitzvah. When three strangers approach Abraham's tent while he is in the middle of a conversation with the Almighty, Abraham puts the Almighty on hold, so to speak, and rushes off to serve his guests. We should ideally embrace this opportunity with the same alacrity.

Host Tip #1: Serve your guests cheerfully. While in general we don't wait until we're in the mood to do a mitzvah, a frowning and ungracious host seems to defeat the purpose, and certainly puts a damper on the guest's experience. Guests feel awful and imposing where they should feel welcome and no trouble. Certainly guests must make some allowance for busy hosts, distracted hosts, overwhelmed hosts, hosts with teenagers (a special category all its own) but hosts must go out of their way to make the guests feel...well...at home.

This can, however, be taken too far. Guests do not want to be so at home that they are privy to internal squabbles and domestic disputes. Just as family struggles should not be played out in front of the children, the guests shouldn't be subject to this discomfort either. You may think this goes without saying, but my (limited) experience as a guest suggests otherwise.

Host Tip #2: The Torah admonishes against contradicting or correcting a guest unnecessarily. Although a host may be able to prove he or she is right on a particular topic (this couldn't be a political discussion because no one gives in there!), there is a price to pay. Guests are made to feel extremely uncomfortable and unlikely to accept the next invitations. This is an important rule in marriages as well. Being right may be a very lonely position.

Host Tip #3: While guests should feel grateful for the efforts of their hosts, as hosts we shouldn't emphasize how much trouble we went to. "I know you like hearts of palm so I went to five stores to find it." "I stayed up all night baking your favorite cake." Neither children nor guests respond well to this guilt trip and the comments suggest that the hospitality is meant to satisfy some needs of the host rather than those of the guests.

If you made that extra effort, keep it to yourself. Speaking of it diminishes everyone's experience.

Host Tip #4: Don't push your guests to eat. While this is a particular challenge for Jewish mothers (don't fool yourself, you'll grow into one!), all hosts need to be vigilant. A hostess who takes pleasure in her cooking wants to share that pleasure with her guest (to put it in the nicest terms) and may be hurt when they don't like it or even try it. This is yet another opportunity to remember that it's about the guest's needs, not yours. (I recommend this as a more useful mantra than "ohm".) Maybe they have an allergy, a rigid diet or just a strong dislike. Not only do we not want our guests to take ill from our cooking but we don't want to sabotage their dieting efforts either (do we?) Although I notice exactly who eats what, who leaves what behind on their plates and who has seconds, I try to keep smiling.

Helpful Hint: I have found that the Jewish mother's need to really feed her guests can be satisfied by having over single guys of almost any age, although college works best. They haven't seen home-cooked food in months and will eat anything and everything on the table. Even Portnoy and his mother would have nothing to complain about.

Host Tip #5: Involve your children in welcoming and serving guests. This is a multi-purpose piece of advice. It is good education for our children. It is a good example for our guests who will then proceed to say flattering things about your family to all their friends. It makes our children feel more warmly disposed to this invasion of their privacy. It relieves us of some of the food service burden and allows greater freedom for interaction with and enjoyment of our company. (As your children get older, that crashing sound in the kitchen will be less of a cause for worry)

Host Tip #6: Learn from others. In the area of kindness, there is always someone who is more thoughtful, more considerate. Just as we frequently pick up decorating tips from a friend's event, so too should we pick up hosting tips.

It's basic to provide overnight guests with towels. Maybe a small basket of soaps and shampoos would be nice. A bottle of water and snacks by their bed? Toys for their children to play with...Everyone's experience is enhanced by an attentive and considerate hostess.

Host Tip #7: Don't make your guests feel trapped. End the evening before they keep glancing at their watches and eyeing the door. It's better they should leave regretfully wishing the conversation (and maybe the eating) could have continued than with the relief and gratitude of an escaping convict.

Host Tip #8: Give overnight guests a key. This seemingly small and silly tip is actually an important one. On a practical level, I have spent far too many nights lying on the living room couch in an exhausted stupor waiting for a guest to return (perhaps a victim of hosts who didn't adhere to tip #7!) to make that mistake again. But I think the true value is psychological. Holding onto the key is holding on to control and power. Relinquishing the key says louder that words "Make yourself at home."

This is the essence of a good hostess. Guests should feel completely relaxed and at home. With full refrigerator privileges. They should feel that we are only concerned with their needs, whatever the reality.

Better a cheery, welcoming host with take-out on paper plates than a frazzled and miserable one with gourmet on Limoges. Of course if you could successfully combine the two...

Click here to read Guest Etiquette.

Published: January 14, 2006


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Visitor Comments: 11

(11) Anonymous, June 16, 2007 4:03 PM

This site explains what it means to do the right thing and how to do it.

Your teachings should be included in
Bat/Bas Mitzvahs.

(10) Anonymous, November 21, 2006 7:19 AM

Don't treat single women guests as babysitters

When I was single, I would often find that as a guest as someone's house, it would be assumed that I would want to play with their kids.

I like playing with kids, but I didn't get married til I was 23, and I often went with friends who were up to 35 and also single. Our hosts would be perfectly curteous to us, but just assume that we would play with their children and want to interact with them instead of joining in the "adult" conversation. A tip to hosts, don't forget that single women are women, and not little children. If you want a baby sitter, get a babysitter. If you want a guest, have a guest.

(9) Lona Goldberg, June 10, 2006 12:00 AM

Do weekend guests split the dining out bills with their host

When people visit for a slightly extended stay is it proper for the host to pay for all meals eaten outside the home? I grew up in the south---now I see "Southern hospitality" began a long time ago.

(8) Ora, March 29, 2006 12:00 AM

excellent article

Thank you Emuna for another wonderful article! Also, responses to last two posters:
Diana, I usually explain to my guests that we keep kosher and make sure to have disposable dishes on hand. That ways I don't have to worry about nice dishes being treifed.
Anonymous, sorry about your bad NYC experiences! I've barely been to NYC but my experiences there were pretty good. Anyway, if you are ever in Jerusalem you are invited to our apartment for Shabbat! (same goes for all ya'll, my email is happynomad83@yahoo.com. Please come!).

(7) Anonymous, January 20, 2006 12:00 AM

This is a wonderful article. I live in NYC and I do not come from a frum home. I am very much interested in learning more about Judaism. But I find people here do not want to know people that are not frum or BT and are not interested in hosting them. For example, people say to me Good Luck and they never pick up the phone to invite me to their homes for Shabbos and Yom Tov. I refuse to invite myself to people's homes because it is wrong. And I am turned off to the frum community but not to learning. So I commend you for your efforts, Emuna.

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