One of my uncles always remembers my favorite coffee mug. Recalling my pickiness (ahem, refined taste) when it comes to the ceramic thickness, handle size, and color of my drinking vessels, he’s sure to set it at my spot at the breakfast table when I visit his family, or bring it to me full of steaming coffee as I’m cuddled on the couch with my aunt and cousins. His memory for my preference on this unremarkable detail never fails to impress and touch me. Not only does my coffee taste that much better in a mug that meets my fastidious specifications, but I feel special and honored by his attentive care. To me, my uncle’s gesture is the essence of stellar hospitality.
Hospitality is the friendly or generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors or strangers. Individuals and societies have valued hospitality across cultures and millennia (some scholars argue that hospitality is the most important ethic at the core of “The Odyssey,” and hospitality is extolled as a spiritual practice across numerous world religions). Countless books and blogs have been devoted to the topic of hospitality, and you can even major in hospitality at some colleges and universities.
While there’s an entire industry around hospitality and the cultivation of it, I like to think of it in simple terms, like the etiquette queen Emily Post speaks of manners: “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.” Similarly, hospitality is less about following rules and more about embodying an attitude of openness, warmth and attention.
Good hospitality, rather than being an end in itself, is a vehicle for connection and a tool we can use to show family, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers love and respect. There certainly isn’t a formula for it, but I’ve learned over the years that there are concrete actions we can take that make those abstract ideas of openness, warmth and attention a reality. Here are a few:
1. Put thought into little gestures
Small acts like remembering a guest’s preferred coffee mug, serving their favorite meal, placing a vase of flowers in their room, or hanging a welcome sign on the door are simple, inexpensive actions that go a long way in creating a hospitable environment of warmth and love. Several of my college friends visited me a few months ago, and I covered one of the walls in our guest room with printed snapshots of our early friendship. In addition to having fun looking at the photos together and reminiscing about our past, this gesture helped me show my friends how grateful I am to have them in my life.
2. Learn how to delegate
I used to think that being a good host meant presenting a spotless house and preparing elaborate meals ahead of time so that guests could kick back and relax during their visit. While I still think it involves good planning and preparation (I feel more welcomed when I am greeted with a clean home, but it’s not the most important thing in the world), I’ve learned that asking for help from guests can promote connectedness. This is particularly true when it comes to meal preparation. It’s just as easy to catch up with visitors while chopping vegetables, setting the table and preparing hors d’oeuvres as it is while lounging in the living room, and you’ll feel less frazzled and frustrated (and therefore more gracious) as a host if you have help.
3. Plan an itinerary
One of my good friends — and one of the best hostesses I know — drafts an itinerary anytime she has friends or family come into town. She includes activities that she knows will interest her guests — a local brewery tour for a foodie friend, a walk at the nature reserve for an outdoorsy cousin, a concert or museum visit for an artistic aunt. My friend’s itineraries demonstrate her knowledge of the visitor and her concern for their preferences; on top of that, the activities she suggests are ones that ensure quality time spent together and promote the creation of shared memories.
Good hospitality isn’t rocket science. It takes time, generosity and attention, but it’s something that we are all capable of offering. And when we give the gift of hospitality, chances are that we’ll end up gaining something as well: Deeper connection with the friends and family members.