Valerie laments that she often entertains, hosting candle-lit buffets and bountiful brunches, but "people never ask me to their houses". "I've given up on people in this city,", she snapped, "They just don't do it."
I wonder about "this city". I suspect her guests have no worse manners than the usual distribution.
The Normal Curve of Reciprocity
1. A small percentage of your guests will be assiduous, carefully noting in a little Kate Spade notebook with whom they must reciprocate, along with notes about food preferences.
2. At the other end of the bell curve, a few exempt themselves from obligation. They make an excuse: business travel ("never home"), newly uncoupled ("not ready") or the hands-down favourite, renos ("when the kitchen is done"). Others say, "I wish I liked to entertain as much as you do." Val wishes she could reply "Well, you do seem to like to be entertained."
3. In the middle are the majority: people who invite you back, either to a similar meal or to a big party that dispenses all such obligations for a good while and leaves sticky rings everywhere.
I don't keep score, but, like Val, hope for eventual, imprecise, relaxed mutuality. Both she and I give people third or fourth chances, and for those in unhappy circumstances, these rules don't apply.
But, as I said to her, if the majority of your functional, healthy guests are not tying on their aprons on your behalf, maybe it's you, or your cooking– or both. Stop inviting them and find new companions.
How to reciprocate
If not willing to reciprocate in any manner, do not accept the invitation.
If anyone needs reminding, traditional etiquette is simple: you have a year, give or take– just like wedding-gift thank-you notes. You don't have to reciprocate like with like: if someone had you to dinner, you might invite them to brunch or a picnic.
Valerie entertains with pool parties, all-women's dinners and holiday open houses but would be happy with a sandwich on someone's deck. She just wants her shoes under their table for a change.
A return invitation extended within a few weeks is, in some circles, viewed as gauche: it gives the sense that you wish to achieve immediate discharge of an onerous obligation. (Could this be called premature reciprocation?)
Inviting someone to a formal ritual event such as a wedding or bar mitzvah is not reciprocity for a dinner party. It's wonderful that you would like their company, but it does not replace the camaraderie of a meal or even a party at your home.
If you invite someone several times and she declines, you can either figure you have tried, therefore retiring your obligation, or you could ask "I'd enjoy seeing you, could you check your calendar for a good time?" Someone who for whatever reason is reluctant will promise to get back to you, then will not. Tant pis.
Valerie eventually spoke with several women about her wish. Val learned that one could not bear her boyfriend, and another thought that she, a well-known performing artist, was invited to lift Valerie's parties, and reciprocation was not necessary because her presence was a coup.
Another preferred to spend time with her guests in restaurants, and took her out. Val wants to be invited to the house, and was disappointed. She has reflected on whom she will continue to invite, and the complexities of friendship.
We are social beings, with codified rituals that may seem unconscious. Reciprocation honours deeply rooted principles of caretaking and cooperation. Even children instinctively understand reciprocity: I play in your house, then you play in mine.
Once we become busy adults, a few of us forget.