It's a welcome sight: your host and hostess standing at the door, holding it open wide as you get out of your car and head toward the house. "Come on in and make yourself at home!" your host calls, with a smile of welcome. Whose spirits wouldn't rise at such a sight? You know you're in for some real hospitality. A hospitable person, according to the dictionary, is "one who is disposed to entertain with generous kindness." Hospitality, then, is not just having a lot of parties, but showing genuine interest in people. It's an attitude of mind. How can we practice this attitude when we share our homes with others? Here are a few pointers.
Real hospitality begins, not when the guests arrive, but even before the invitations are issued. Everyone likes to show hospitality to his or her friends, to those whose company is sure to be stimulating and enjoyable. But what about that widow with the three children? What about those new people in the area? These people appreciate hospitality even more than those who already have lots of friends and social opportunities. Good hosts and hostesses think about the combinations of people they invite over together. For example, they might balance a guest list including several talkative, gregarious people with one or two quieter people who are better listeners. Also, thoughtful hosts take care to invite people far enough in advance to make it convenient for them to plan, but not so far ahead as to make it awkward for them to refuse if they prefer not to come. (It's hard to say you're busy three months in advance!) A week or two in advance is just about right. The host remembers to explain in detail the directions to his home, if the guests have not visited before. He might even provide them with a map. He mentions what kind of clothing will be appropriate, and the parking arrangements. Have you ever been the guest of someone who was so worried about the table, the dinner rolls and the mashed potatoes that he or she seemed to have no time for you? A truly hospitable host understands that, while the guests enjoy the decor and the food, they have really come to see him or her. This host plans ahead, taking care of as many details as possible before the guests arrive, so that he can enjoy visiting and fellowshipping with them.
Make guests comfortable
When the guests arrive, the host greets them warmly at the door and makes them feel welcome. "Hi, Mary! Hello, John! Glad you could make it. Did you find the place without any trouble?" He takes their wraps and shows them around the house. A skilled host knows his guests may feel a little uncomfortable at first, being in a strange place and completely dependent on him. With his warm and friendly manner, he puts them at ease, and sees that their food, drink and other wants and needs are amply provided for. He tries to prevent any awkwardness or embarrassment for them. The story is that a guest at one of Queen Victoria's dinners was overwhelmed by the finery and formality. When the servants brought out finger bowls, crystal bowls of water with flower petals floating inside, the awestruck guest looked around nervously, lifted his bowl to his lips and drank it — whereupon, Queen Victoria did the same! That gracious woman understood the importance of putting her guests at ease.
What about food?
In planning the food, his guests' preferences are. a good host's prime considerations. He tries to find out beforehand if they are allergic to some items, dislike some kinds of food, are watching their weight or are avoiding alcohol. A good rule is to plan for one or two people more than are actually coming. That way, guests will feel welcome to take seconds if offered. Of course, no one can be expected to entertain beyond his means. If he can't afford to have someone over for dinner, a person can practice hospitality by asking another in for cake and coffee or for popcorn, lemonade and a game of cards.
After the meal is over, what should the host or hostess do? Rush to clear the table and wash the dishes? No, after-dinner conversation is often the best part of a visit. The guests are filled and happy, and the hosts are more relaxed because the bulk of the work is already past. It is the host's responsibility to lead the conversation. To lead does not mean to dominate, but to focus on the guests, directing the topics toward them and their interests. A gracious host or hostess is careful to see that no one is left out. He does not allow the conversation to dwell long on a topic to which only a few can contribute. Many people enjoy a lively back-and-forth discussion. This can be fine, even desirable, if everyone takes it in fun and has a good time. But the moment a host senses that someone will have his or her feelings hurt, he smooths over the controversial point and changes the subject.
Ending the evening
Sometimes a host and hostess might be tempted to think they have done their jobs too well, for while they are exhausted, the guests linger on! It is not wrong to give such seemingly oblivious guests a hint. Often, just standing to clear the table will be enough. If not, a subtle remark like "What a great time we've had today! How we've enjoyed your company!" might do the trick. Then try mentioning the time. A host knows he can entertain his guests more willingly next time if they don't overstay their welcome this time. Showing hospitality is a superb — and pleasant — way to practice the give way of life.