Reciprocity: Valerie's wish

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.


mette said…
An interesting subject. I agree, that it is polite to return an invitation. I think that if you are invited along with a big crowd of others, attending or paying a visit back, becomes a bit more complicated. There are people, I wish to return a visit and have them coming to my house, but there are those, I rather meet and treat at a restaurant. One visit accepted is good manners, but if the atmosphere is not to my liking, I would refuse the future ones in a polite way. One way to pay a visit back ( a visit, you don´t want to return ), could be to send a small gift/flowers afterwards and let the relationship just fade away. Following etiquette is an easy way to handle situations, although some people find them too old fashioned. Maybe Valerie could herself think why she is throwing so many parties and are the invited really worth an invitation...
Sevenbeads said…
Sorry so long!

As a newly wed (30 years ago) I hosted many dinners before we all started our families and dinner parties became a fond BK (Before Kids) memory. I used my wedding gift china, silver and crystal and then wondered why we seldom got invited to other homes for dinner. I had my "Oh, that's why" moment when we were at someone's home and she served on lovely but non-fussy stoneware and her casual dinner seemed to put everyone at such ease. We were all so young then and many didn't have or want the delicate tableware. I think some felt that I wouldn't expect anything less. So not true! I wanted friends and good times, not formality. I switched to the plainer dishes ... served homemade pizza and cold beer. We started to receive as many invitations as we gave. Now those same friends and new friends in our age group are far less intimidated by the good stuff. In fact they're flattered if I use it.
Duchesse said…
metscan: She throws many parties because she truly enjoys entertaining- and she's a dynamo.
Etiquette can vary by country or even region, but in general North Americans will invite people to their homes more readily than some other cultures.

Splurgie: That's a very good point- entertaining styles vary depending on time of life. And you don't have to reciprocate an elegant dinner with one of your own. (Val's have ranged from picnics in the park, with games for the children, to black tie.)
mette said…
Duchesse: What Splurgie wrote, is true. Many of us suffer of bad self-esteem ( I´m working on this too ), which makes us feel, that we can´t compete with people like Valerie. By what you have told, she really puts her heart to these projects. Maybe less could be more. And now I find myself turning too analytical, as I wonder, why someone wants to entertain all the time....
Shelley said…
So it's not just me... I have thrown parties, dinner parties, Thanksgiving parties, anywhere from one to 6-7 a year. Reciprocation is rare. Some are single men and so one might understand, though we've been invited post-run for informal snacks or over for spaghetti ("that's all I can cook") and drinks. Some are students with no private space, but we've gathered at restaurants with them. Many are just frightened of opening their humble homes and I try to go to coffee with them sometimes. One is a woman who is married, reasonably well off with a lovely home, who came every year for ages to Thanksgiving. She's off the list. Enough.

Some of this is about being in a foreign culture and about how we mix lots of different kinds of people, perhaps. I like to entertain and so I have to choose which is more important to me.
LPC said…
Kids have to be taught early to take turns:).
Susan B said…
What an interesting topic!

We don't entertain nearly as much as I'd like, but then neither do any of our friends. It's a shame really; I miss dinner parties and such. We host an annual July 4th bash for around 30-35 people and I do Thanksgiving for anywhere from 15-22 people. But most of our friends are so busy with jobs and families, and LA is so spread out that no one gets together on a regular basis anymore. Weekdays it's just too tough with after-work traffic, and weekends seem to get taken up with family activities.
Belle de Ville said…
Maybe it's just the stage of life that I've reached but I find that there is much less entertaining at home than there was 20 years ago.
Most everyone I know meets at restaurants rather than in private homes, but reciprocity it still important, even if it is just extending an invitation to a new restaurant.
NancyDaQ said…
I became tired of entertaining at home due to people's varied dietary preferences. Although I've tried to please and accommodate, I'm not a restaurant nor do I want to be.

I don't think Valerie should be put off by the friend reciprocating at a restaurant rather than at home. Perhaps the friend can't cook or she's uncomfortable with her furnishings. At least she tried. The performance artist, on the other hand, should be dropped from the guest list because of her inflated ego.
highheeledlife said…
Awesome post... and good timing with the warm weather upon us - the entertaining really kicks off outdoors. I agree , reno's are not an excuse - we have been renovating (no kitchen) for almost 7 months and we have managed to have people over - either ordering take-out; BBQ; or just simple dessert and wine night. Also even though since my accident and ABI I find hard to cope with lots of noise and organize things - I still want people around and want them at my home. So,there is no excuse that anyone can use. If there is a will - there is a way!
Most of the friends are fairly good about reciprocating, though for some it is restaurants rather than home (doesn't bother me at all - I want to see them, not their flat, house or studio appartment). Even the few who have small children (second family...). There is one who never does, because he lives in a tiny flat, doesn't have much money, and alas is NOT a cook. I got very peeved at a friend who was a bit of a leech some years back - she never reciprocated or brought wine or other contributions. Since her marriage, she has become much more attunded to that (her husband it much better than she about such matters).

Of course Montréal is not very spread out for a North American city and has very good public transport - now the métro even goes to the suburb of Laval, so it is much easier to visit my friends who live up there!

Indeed the friends who live in Paris always invite out to restaurants - because even professionals there live in tiny places, and also due to different attitudes towards home and privacy.
aaonce said…
Home is the place I recharge and because of that it is surrounded with things that speak to my soul. To invited be into my home is an invitation to become closer to (or know more about) me. You will see the most deeply personal things in my home reflecting my journey as a person and even where my values lie. This is possibly more information than I may have chosen to ever reveal about myself to a particular person. Some of these things are not necessarily secret, only private. As a person gets closer to me, they will learn these things, but I find that freindships take time. I don't reveal everything about myself in the first five minutes of meeting someone and I am still a quite a gregarious person. People are always trying to solicit an invitation into my home. I frequently will redirect these "invitations" to a restaurant or other venue, and the main reason is because I feel that a particular aquaintence is "not at that place yet". You mentioned that Valerie specifically wanted to be invited into the homes of certain individuals--which may imply that she is seeking to be closer to people than they may want to allow her to be to them.
I don't presume to speak for anyone else, but perhaps some of the people that are witholding an invitation are trying to say that they don't necessarily want to become that close to Valerie, for whatever reason.
sue said…
I may have misread your post, but did you mean to imply that thank you notes can be sent up to a year after receiving a gift? I was taught that they must be sent as promptly as possible, within a month at the very latest. I can't imagine sending a note a year after receiving a gift.

I have heard that wedding gifts can be *given* up to a year after the wedding, but thank you notes must be sent out ASAP. Just curious if the custom is different in Canada. (I'm in the southeastern US.)
Darla said…
I enjoy cooking and entertaining people and for the most part don't keep track of who "owes". Most of the people who come to dinner or parties are friends and they wouldn't be friends if they didn't offer me something - enhance my life in some way. It doesn't have to be tit for tat.

Mardel said…
We used to entertain a great deal, and many many people did not reciprocate. Now we don't entertain much and I miss it dearly, but it is a strain on us as my spouse has moderate dementia and it is a challenge. I do try to keep up with those who are kind enough to invite us, and try to reciprocate also, but it is often now on a modest scale.
materfamilias said…
Such a sensible summation of a sensitive issue.
Because Pater is a happy and very competent cook (and will shop and help clean as well), it's easier for me to entertain than for many of my friends since the workload is shared. And because we live at the beach, we feel pretty comfortable with a casual entertaining style that also makes life easier. So I don't worry about those (generally colleagues, often single women, occasionally a single guy, sometimes a very busy, very young family) who don't reciprocate, altho'it would be nice . . .
What bothers me is the discomfort some people create around this, without doing anything to alleviate it, by referring regularly to the fact that they "really must have you over some time" which puts me in the position of reassuring them. to make such a statement once or twice, fine, but after the fourth time, and you're still not inviting, just be quiet already!
I did finally tell one such chap that we certainly hadn't invited him with any idea of required reciprocity, we'd enjoyed the evening together, and that was enough, but that if he was really bothered, having us over for ordered-in pizza would be fine (he worried about his culinary skills when his wife was away -- and I suspect he worried about his wife's behaviour when she was back, a bit erratic . .. ). He never did manage an invitation altho'he mentioned his wish to have us over several more awkward occasions after that. The last several, I just smiled and repeated that we'd enjoyed the evening we spent with him, but refused to say anything either way about his non-proferred invitation.
Any comments/suggestions about this kind of situation?
Duchesse said…
metscan: I am guessing she has people over, ranging from one friend to a larger group, several times a month- I do not consider this "all the time". She enjoys the connection and conviviality. It's her way of unwinding from a huge job and frequent travel. She lives alone and likes a lively house.

Shelley: Your comment about culture reminded me- when I first moved to Canada, nearly 40 years ago, just out of school, I'd say "Come over any time"- and no one came. It was not the Canadian way. I learned that if I offered a specific invitation people would accept.

LPC: I think she's having to make her wishes explicit now, as some never learned.

Pseu: We rarely have someone over during the work week- mostly when someone is traveling through and it's the only chance.

aaone: I understand your choice to keep your private space private, and infer that you wish to permit people in, when and as you see fit.

Any idea why people "are always trying to solicit invitations"?

In Valerie's case, certain women have come to her home for 6-8 years, and do not reciprocate. If they do not wish to be "that close" to her, I wonder why they keep accepting.

Belle: Because she travels for business a great deal, she is tired of restaurant meals and finds homes- her own or others- more relaxing. I don't mind meeting in restaurants, but then, I am not on the road. Some of our friends who are not avid cooks serve fancy take-out from places like Whole Foods. I like that, too!

Nanflan: I've posted on the tyranny of the picky-eater guest. We do the most basic accommodation (vegetarian or avoiding a stated allergy). So I don't invite ultra picky eaters!

seeyouthere: It doesn't have to be tit for tat for her, either, but I agree with Val that there should be some mutuality over the years- as I wrote, if not a meal, the theatre or an outing.

sue: Newlyweds have up to a year to send notes, and that's what I was thinking of. But for other occasions, agree with you- a note should be sent within a few days! A reasonable period for reciprocating an invitation is one year, and as I and others have said, there are extenuating circumstances.

mardel: You are in the category of "does not apply". We have a friend with Parkinsons, we invite him when he is up to it, drop in for brief visits and never think about whose turn it is.

lagatta: The level of restaurant to which I'd like to take someone makes frequent entertaining out very costly. We can serve a much more wonderful meal at home, and not even think about cost. On a few occasions, we hired a chef, which still cost less than a good restaurant.

I had a friend who came regularly for Sunday dinner, about 3/4 of all weekends- and all holidays. A year passed without one invitation for any kind of activity from her. I found this ungracious behaviour.
Duchesse said…

Few of us would enjoy an invitation that is perfunctory or forced. "We must have you over sometime" translates as, "I know I'm in an awkward situation but I can't bring myself to address it."

So continue to reassure him you enjoyed his company, uttering the adult equivalent of "Whenever."

Your pizza suggestion, making sure he knows you do not expect the incredible Pater cuisine (I've read those menus!)- reminds me of chef friend who used to reassure intimidated friends that he ate at Burger King. (Otherwise they would never invite him.)

And at the same time, you did close the net just a tad, letting him know you know there *are* ways to reciprocate.

You don't say what the basis is for having "the chap" over: whether he is a friend or colleague. I'd find it hard to keep a friendship going with no reciprocity (as I keep saying, it does not have to be a meal).

Over the years we have had a number of guests who do not reciprocate, but the ones who have no reason OTHER THAN that they cannot be bothered do not get invited back eternally.
Tish Jett said…
What a great, straight-forward lesson in etiquette. I think Val was courageous to ask directly why she wasn't being invited back. Good for her.

(Interesting someone would accept an invitation who doesn't like her boyfriend, but doesn't value her friendship enough to tolerate him chez elle. Lovely.)

One thing we learn over the years, I think, is, as you pointed out, one doesn't have to reciprocate in kind. I have friends who throw huge formal dinners. I would be in intensive care if I had more than eight people around my table.

Etiquette is supposed to be considered kindness. Not very difficult really if one is truly a friend.
materfamilias said…
Duchesse, part of the problem in cases like this is the need to reassure that Pater and I aren't inviting because we necessarily expect a longterm friendship. We're simply making up extra numbers for a dinner table with people we find interesting -- in a way, really, the company is itself a reciprocation for the meal. While a return invitation would be pleasant and welcome, repeated references to such an invitation without it actually ever materializing just make the whole situation awkward. I guess I feel that if something is worth apologizing for, it's also worth remedying. Otherwise, stay quiet.. .
Frugal Scholar said…
Another of my weak areas. I really dislike having people to my house; it puts me in a panic. Must work on this...
Duchesse said…
materfamilias: I agree about the "if you;re not willing to do anything about it".

Does "making up extra numbers"-beyond perhaps once- excuse someone from returning your hospitality, in some form, occasionally?
Duchesse said…
Frugal: Not everyone, as you will read here, cares about an invitation "to the house" like my friend does. You can reciprocate many ways, like taking them to Goodwill and lunch :)
Duchesse said…
Tish: I'm glad she made her wishes known, too. In doing so, there were risks, but a real, instead of artificial friendship will endure with such openness.
dana said…
Um, does a 6 year old and 3 year old twin boys count as extenuating circumstances? What about a house that wasn't designed to hold five people, much less guests? Oh dear. Maybe next administration (if this one goes eight years).
Duchesse said…
dana: Of course reciprocating does not necessarily mean hosting in your home, but in her case not one of these women has children, let alone young ones. When ours were that age, we did picnics in parks or playgrounds, among other gatherings.

Neither parenthood nor house size seems to me a reason for not returning hospitality in some manner, within this administration- that is, in just under three years.
Oh my goodness!! I think that you wrote this post with me in mind. My husband and I give several large parties a year and have been doing so for quite a while. Honestly, I can count on one hand the number of times that our hospitality has been reciprocated. I have friends (and I use the word loosely) who have been guests of my home for many years and I have never even seen the inside of their houses! Nor do they reciprocate in any other fashion.

After this last holiday season, I was exhausted and at my wit's end about what to do. My husband is already planning several large "bashes" for the summer. I would just as soon not do anything then put myself out for people who don't seem to understand common curtosies.
I don't think I have the nerve to ask these folks why they don't reciprocate. I really don't know what to do.
I love entertaining groups of friends. Over the summer we have heaps of bbqs by the pool. I realised some years back that my friends came not because I'm the world's best cook (I'm not) but for the friendship, and that made me take pressure off myself about having to dish up amazing food. It has to be edible of course.

When I lived in the UK I was almost never invited around to anyone's house. They invite you to the pub, but not home for a meal - you basically have to be family before you get into and English person's house for a meal it seems.

I don't do as much entertaining (dinners) as I did before kids, as my kids, being young, go to bed by 7.30pm, and that kind of interferes with entertaining in the evening. As they get a little older I know I'll get back into the swing of it.

I live people to invite back, but I don't expect it. I don't invite people as an expectation that they'll invite me back, I just invite because I enjoy it.
Anonymous said…
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Duchesse said…
pasunejeune: I can say what I would do, but that may not be agreeable to you or your husband. I'd pare the guest list if certain people have not reciprocated for years- unless it is someone that in your heart, you would not care if they ever reciprocated your hospitality.

Since it sounds like your husband enjoys hosting parties, I'd look for ways to make it not so exhausting: Hire an extra pair of hands to set up and/or clean up, rent dishes, and keep the food/drinks really simple.

Imogen: I invite people because I enjoy them, too, but if over a long period there is no indication that they enjoy me enough to extend an invitation to do anything at all, I'd have to pause to consider whether I wanted to do all the giving in the relationship.
Anonymous said…
Oh boy. This hits a nerve.

We are on the opposite side of the fence. We moved to a very small town in the mountains and rented a very basic low-rent cabin and started a business.

A few years later, his sister and a million of her friends all moved up here at the same time.

At the same time, our business started doing great, so we rented a large new house and began to furnish it with decent furniture. "Began" is the operative word.

Within that first year, the bottom dropped out of our business because of new legislation. We never finished furnishing the place.

In the meantime, his sister and her army of friends were building mega houses and furnishing them from top to bottom without blinking an eye. Many of these people are retired or near the end of their careers.

They have more time, housekeepers, money, and beautiful homes and gardens. And they all LOVE to entertain.

We'd get invited to parties all the time. It felt rude to decline, especially the parties given in someone's honor.

Eventually, a few people started saying they never got to come to our home. It's painful to me.

We don't even have dining room furniture. The chairs on the back deck are cheap mildewed plastic.

We recently got our business back on track, but now are in so much debt due to the downturn, that all the money we make has to pay debt or build up inventory to grow the business. We simply can't spend much on the house.

We even moved to a smaller home to save on rent.

Add to the fact that all the other women aren't working AND they have housekeepers. Whereas I work and don't have any help. The housework is never caught up.

I appreciate the invitations, but I wish I could go back to the days when we lived here alone and weren't made to feel so bad.

We do try to do favors for people, like taking them soup when they're sick among other things. Sometimes the more casual parties involve pot luck and we contribute and help clean up.

But I know that everyone is confused as to why we are the only couple in the group that never invites anyone over.

I hate being in this situation.
s. said…
I feel passionate - very passionate - about this subject. I don't enjoy having people into my home as I am deeply protective of my privacy and somehow any critique (even positive!) of my personal space hits me "where I live," so to speak.

However, I believe not just nice but deeply important to entertain. Society is fragmented and traditional institutions like church and clubs don't provide community like they used to. There have been many times where I've been terribly lonely, even in my "home town" and I imagine that many others feel the same.

And so I entertain. Whether it's a few of us sitting on my front stoop, sipping wine and watching people pass by or a sit-down dinner for 8 (far less frequent than the former). I don't think I'm a great entertainer, but many guests have met future employees, friends and even spouses chez moi so I tell myself that this makes up for the fact I'm not a brilliant cook or have the latest designer furniture.

I do wish that others would eventually reciprocate, but it's rare. I am annoyed, but remind myself that I entertain because *I* think it's important, and I cannot worry if others don't. I've found one friend who regularly entertains, and this helps me feel much, much better than I'd have imagined.

While I am learning to not expect reciprocity, I'm still shocked by how ungracious guests can be. "I'd entertain, too, if I had a house like this" (Would you, or would you find another excuse not to have me over?) "Entertaining comes so easily to you" (Really? Is that why I was dry heaving in the bathroom half an hour before the guests arrived?) Or, of course, my favourite, "Since you don't have children, entertaining must be a cinch!" (Yeah, but those invasive, expensive fertility treatments that never worked weren't quite such a cinch.)
Duchesse said…
Anon@ 5:47: A painful and awkward situation for you, compounded with the larger picture of your financial struggle.

You refer to "made to feel bad". Are you sure these people are deliberately trying to make you feel bad? (If so, dump them!)

The first thing to think about: do you *want* to attend these parties or are you only going because you think you *should*? If you enjoy the gatherings, begin by having a heart to heart with your sister. She already knows your circumstances.

If people ask why they do not come to your home, they have a 'manners deficiency' or are unthinking. You might reply, "Because we simply are not in a position to entertain just now." No further explanation is needed. Anyone prying can simply be told, "We have too much going on in our business and personal lives."

And you ARE reciprocating with the soup and potlucks, and that was one of my points: reciprocation does not have to be like with like.

If you do want to spend more time socially, you could meet friends at a scenic spot for a semi-potluck (you make a big pot of chili, for example, and they brings sides) or meet everyone fro a slow-pitch game and ice cream cones (from a cooler in your car) after. Start a book club that meets in the one room of the house that you have furnished. Go for a walk, stop for coffee.

Finally, a bitter fact: All of us have a social level, and if we stretch too far up, it is hard not to feel anxious. (A few richer friends seems to me to be fun but if they all are, it's uncomforable unless you are oblivoius to it.)
Better to find some people whose lifestyle is more sympatico with yours than to beat yourself up by comparisons to those who have more.
Duchesse said…
s: I've known people for years and have never invited them to the house and others, met the first time and invited them over- because I felt like it. No one should feel obliged to have someone in her home till she wishes.

At the same time I find people way too self-conscious about not having designer stuff or worried about their hospitality.

I've had some of the best evenings of my life sitting on the floor, eating a Moroccan stew (what was int it, who knows), the hosts forgot to serve the salad and a very friendly dog nudged us just hoping something would fall off the plates.

Lighten up! If people are convivial they will have a pleasant-to-marvelous time. Rub a little lemon Pledge over the doorknobs, clean your toilet, turn down the lights and everything else is just window dressing.

Loved your comment about building community. We need to break bread together and the cheapest, warmest place to do that is in someone's home.

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