Monday, March 15, 2010

Reggie's Rules For Social Reciprocity, Part II: Myth vs. Reality

Following on my recent discussion of the two rules that are the foundation of "Reggie's Rules of Social Reciprocity" in my post dated February 26th, I thought it would be helpful for me to explain exactly what I believe social reciprocity does and does not entail.  And I will seek to accomplish this by outlining, and then debunking, various myths that I have heard over the years from people mistaken in their understanding of what is, and what is not, required.

Myth 1:  Hosts should entertain solely out of the goodness and generosity of their hearts.  It is unreasonable, petty, and calculating of them to expect a return invitation of some kind.

Reality:  Not true.  As I have already explained in my previous post on this subject, while not the primary reason for entertaining, the prospect of return invitations by one’s guests is a pleasing benefit that a host should reasonably look forward to, assuming that host and guest both wish to maintain a social relationship going forward.

Myth 2:  I, as a guest, am under no obligation to reciprocate my hosts’ invitations, regardless of the number of times they entertain me.

Reality:  This is only true if you don’t care for the host, but then why accept subsequent invitations if you don’t?  If, on the other, hand you like the person(s) who hosted you and wish to maintain a social relationship with them going forward, including a return invitation at some point, then the answer is you MUST reciprocate in accordance with your means and circumstances.

Myth 3:  It doesn’t matter how long it takes me to reciprocate my host’s hospitality.

Reality:  While there is some leeway here, you really should strive to reciprocate hospitality within three months.  After that it starts getting stale.

Myth 4:  One can only reciprocate with an equivalent type of event, such as a cocktail party for a cocktail party, a dinner party for a dinner party, etc.

Reality:  Not true.  The form of the entertainment you provide is incidental and is dependent on your means and circumstances.  If we only reciprocated with like events that would mean we all threw the same party, which would get rather boring, wouldn’t it?

Myth 5:  I couldn’t possibly invite the So-and-Sos to my house because they are much richer/better cooks/throw more expensive parties/have nicer things/are better connected than I am/am/can/do/am.

Reality:  Absolutely and utterly wrong, and a frequent misconception.  The So-and-Sos, if they are civilized people, will be delighted to join you in whatever entertainment you are capable of providing.  Simply because they hosted you to a formal dinner doesn't mean they won't enjoy spending an evening with you at your house eating Chinese takeout and watching the Oscars (as my friend and fellow blogger Lindaraxa commented on my first post on this subject).  As one of my very grandest and most generous friends once said to me, “Reggie, my dear, I am thrilled to be invited into anyone’s home these days, it’s become so rare.  I could care less whether I’m invited to a white tie dinner dance in a palace or for crackers and cheese in a third-floor walkup.  Just to be invited somewhere by someone today is such a pleasure!”

Never be ashamed of how you live or what you haven’t got, and do not use it as an excuse to refrain from returning an invitation.  Most people are delighted to be invited anywhere, so long as they like the person who is inviting them.  Your friends already know your circumstances.  They will appreciate any effort you make on their behalf.

Myth 6:  I couldn’t possibly invite the Such-and-Suches to my house because they are much younger/older/poorer/less well-connected that I am and, besides, they don't further my social agenda.

Reality:  Utterly and infuriatingly wrong.  Don’t be a self-serving, social-climbing, insular snob.  Never refrain from inviting people to your party simply because they don’t have the same (or better) features as the face that stares back at you when you look in the mirror.  If you like them and believe they will be a net addition to your party, then for goodness' sake invite them.  Recognize, however, that they may not be able to entertain you in the same manner you entertain them.  But be prepared to have a delightful time when they ask you to join them one evening, either at their house or elsewhere.

Myth 7:  I can’t possibly entertain.  I only live in a small apartment, and I don’t have any nice dishes or anything much to entertain with.  Besides, I can’t cook!

Reality:  No one says you must only entertain in your home, and that you have to prepare a groaning board for your guests.  There are all sorts of ways that you can entertain someone or a couple who has extended you hospitality when you don’t have the ability (or inclination) to do so where you live.  Here are some suggestions:
  • Take them out to a meal in a fun restaurant;
  • Organize a picnic in a local park for a summer’s evening concert and arrive with prepared boxed meals;
  • Treat them to admission and drinks one evening at a museum -- many cities have museums that are open one night during the week;
  • Plan a weekend afternoon’s road-trip to a nearby town or destination, and create a fun and interesting itinerary;
  • Ask them to join you for a cooking class one night offered by a local culinary school or chef;
  • Sign up for a wine-tasting seminar;
  • Buy tickets to a show or sporting event that you will both enjoy;
  • Take them to an interesting lecture and treat them to a bite to eat afterwards;
The principle here is that it is critical to define “entertaining” as more than throwing a party in one’s home.  If that isn’t practical, then take the initiative and invite your guests to join you (at your expense) to do something fun, interesting, and enjoyable – however you may define it.  At the end of the day it almost doesn’t matter what you do at all.  It certainly doesn’t matter how much it costs, as there are many options available to you to entertain inexpensively.  Just do something!


The concept of social reciprocity applies only to private entertaining.  It does not apply to public entertainments, corporate events, or anything work-related for that matter.  You are under no obligation to reciprocate invitations to the following:
  • Fund-raising benefits that you are invited to by a friend where you are expected to buy a ticket and bear the cost of your attendance; your support of the event is sufficient.  However, it is in your right to expect that friends whose charitable causes you have supported by attending their favored benefits return the favor should you invite them to one that you support in the future;
  • Anything work-related.  Entertainment provided by people that are senior than you are at the office or workplace does not entail a requirement to reciprocate, particularly when the cost of the entertainment is expensed to your firm.  This includes your boss taking you and your spouse out to dinner or entertaining you at his/her home.  It is a different matter, though, if a colleague at the same level as you invites you over for dinner, since that is where it has crossed over the line from work into the realm of social friendship.
The only other exception is when the recipient of the hospitality is in the midst of confronting a major, life-changing event that absorbs all of their faculties and attention.  That would include an illness, the dissolution of a marriage, a bereavement, or similar.

But that’s it.

Some of my readers may be surprised that there aren’t more exceptions on this list.  That is because I believe that the obligation to reciprocate hospitality is a broadly-applied one, covering virtually ALL private social situations, and crossing all social boundaries, economic strata, and generations.  The key take away remains: reciprocity is required when the guest has enjoyed the hosts’ hospitality and where the maintenance and strengthening of such relationship is agreed to by both parties.  As I have said before: the form of such entertainment or hospitality is incidental, the obligation of it is not.

And that's all I have to say on the matter.

Cartoon from Terribly Nice People by Wlliam Hamilton, G. B. Putnam's Sons, 1975


  1. Excellent post! You've obliterated all the excuses that I have used for years to get out of entertaining.
    I guess that it's time to polish the sterling.

  2. ...and it only gets better and better!

    I grew up with a lot of home entertaning by my parents, and I look forward to hosting more than a BBQ! I guess there are really no excuses..

    Northern Light.

  3. Love the cartoon! Unfortunately I've found myself in the same social situations. Thanks for the advice and relieving some of the pressures of entertaining.

  4. Thank you, Reggie, it is a pleasure for me to be your friend too. On the subject, there is nothing more to be said, you've said it all very well and to the point.

  5. Thanks Belle and Natasha:
    Once you get the hang of it entertaining can be, as Dorothy Draper famously wroye "Fun!" and as another commenter wrote rather salt-ily easier over time. But then I am sure you are both pros at this, of course.

    Architecturalist: Isn't the cartoon fun? Pretty much lays it on the line I think.

    Lindaraxa: Right back at you, my friend. Yes I think I've just about strangled the subject with this one. But there's more to be discussed on an associated topic -- stay tuned for "The Myth of Casual Entertaining"

  6. Good advise here!
    And nothing more frustrating than when the 3 month period passes and your reciprocity feels stale! BUT, I think it's important to just man-up, apologize for the delay, and make it happen!

  7. You are perfectly correct on everything in this post! Can we start up a collection to post this on billboards around the country?

  8. Underlined and agreed upon. perfect.

  9. Reggie, I have not invited friends over because of some of the above excuses you so carefully noted. So I have no more excuses.
    Again my friend from out of state has invited me to spend some time with her and her family.
    She insists on making dinner and breakfast.
    I am looking forward to my visit. I will happily shop for some NY goodie to take to her home.
    Great post!

  10. Oops. May I add something. My friend and her husband always anticipate my visits because I always bring something for their doggy pal.

  11. Jason: The three month guideline is a suggestion only, clearly there will be times it is impractical. I am sure that your friends will have good reason to look forward to your entertaining them when you are able to.

    Butler: Why thank you. The billboard will need to be quite large I am afraid!

    Ulla: Thank you for your comment and approval.

    Barbara: It is a thoughtful and welcome guest that arrives with a token of appreciation for their host's efforts and generosity, particularly if it's consumable.

  12. Shall I expect you for dinner at eight?

  13. Hello PVE: Nice to hear from you. I am confident that an evening spent enjoying your hospitality, whether at your house or elsewhere, would be delighful! Reggie

  14. Reggie --

    I wonder how you might feel about these strictures if you lived in a company town, such as Washington, where so very few people have relationships that are not, one way or another, brutally utilitarian.

    (In any case, you have inadvertently provided a powerful case for reclusive misanthropy. I salute you.)


  15. Dear Ancient: I lived in Washington DC as a child and witnessed many parties that my parents gave where the guest list was exclusively drawn from social friends. Later, as an adult I witnessed the other kind you speak of, thrown by my stepmother, where the sole purpose was to further a calculated agenda. Needless to say, Reggie's rules apply to the former type of entertainment and not the latter. On your final point, I appreciate your humor; however, my goal is to promote social intercourse rather than providing an excuse to shirk it.

  16. Reggie --

    Just to be fair...

    This evening there were six to dinner, all friends dating back many decades. An academic philosopher, a museum head, a hotel owner, someone whose work cannot be disclosed, and his wife, a recent mother. And one other.

    A pound of American Ossetra, thirty-six hand-made blinis, crème fraiche, and two bottles of Bollinger. Then, after a decent interval, Deborah Devonshire's recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon (altered in various ways), with noodles (aka "artisanal pappardelle") and a mustardy salad. Four bottles of very serious burgundy. Then, later, coffee and vast amounts of berries laced with very old Armagnac. (For the two Irish in attendance, there were also drams of Middleton, straight up.)

    In other words, we may not disagree so much as we like to pretend.


  17. Dearest Ancient: Well, indeed, what a marvelous and lavish repast you provide your cultured friends. I an sure the conversation was erudite, when it wasn't giddy, spooning mouthfuls of Ossetra between gulps of Bolly! Reggie would have enjoyed himself immensely at your table, an invitation he would covet, if he allowed himself to engage in (at least) one of the seven sins...which he does, from time to time.

  18. Wow, you and The Ancient surely engage in amusing repartees at stratospheric levels, a good sign of mutual respect and impeccable manners. I think that, if nothing else, you have both met your match! En garde!

  19. Thank you SO MUCH for saying this.

    My husband is a natural host; he's entertained hundreds of people in the humblest imaginable single-room apartments even before we married, which was a major part of the reason I chose him.

    What woman doesn't love a generous host and want to stay on for the party indefinitely? Even if it means pot scrubbing at the end of the night. He showed me the real beauty of generosity.

    Now we have a big house and yard; we have at least four big parties every year. Four children have hardly put a dent in our entertaining, though our budget is humbler.

    BUT NOBODY EVER INVITES US BACK!!!!! OK, not "nobody," but the people who are well-off enough to do it just.... don't. I can't understand it. There is no excuse.

    Fire up the grill, for God's sake, hamburgers for twelve won't break anyone's bank around here.

    One girlfriend of mine does reciprocate. She has a teeny duplex apartment, and the first thing she did when she moved in was invite everyone over for make-your-own pizza night.

    Entertaining doesn't have to be fancy or sophisticated or even gorgeously well-planned. The conversations don't have to be sparkling.

    It's the accumulated experience of doing it over and over that brings layers of richness, memory, connection to our lives. Even if your first five dinner parties seem like a flop to you, everyone will remember that you did it. That's the stuff LIFE is made of!

  20. CeeBee: Thank you for your comment, and welcome to RD. I certainly appreciate what you write here, as obviously you and I see eye to eye here. Kindred spirits, indeed.

  21. Here is another set of exceptions I think:

    Birthday Parties
    Wedding Related Parties
    New Baby Related Parties


Please do comment! I welcome and encourage them, and enjoy the dialogue.

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