Friday, September 28, 2007

Host and Guest: open arms, empty hands?

Dear Mr. Steichen,

When you're invited to a dinner party, what is appropriate to bring? What if the host explicitly says NOT to bring anything? What about a cocktail hour or a smaller party?

Ah the follow instructions and show up empty handed, or to be the only one who doesn't bring something along and feel like a heel.

[Note: the following thoughts are NOT meant to address the question of whether to bring a PRESENT for a guest of honor, but rather the question of gifts for a host or other items brought to contribute to a gathering itself. Presents are a whole other can of worms!]

First, the bad news: there is no hard and fast answer to these questions. It will always be a judgment call that you will have to make depending on the circumstances of the occasion and your relationship to the host. Even if the host tells you not to bring anything, it's not out of the question to bring a small gift as a thank-you. BUT, the good news: there are a few general guidelines you can keep in mind as you weigh the situation. Oddly, there seems to be a sort of a bell curve at work on this issue...stretching from most formal to least formal types of events.

For formal social occasions (let's say a dinner party for a dozen--weddings and other bigger life events are in a different league altogether), it's very appropriate and thoughtful to bring something for the hosts. They are presumably going to a lot of trouble, and are inviting you into their home for an intimate evening. ["But what do I bring?" you ask. We'll get to that presently.]

On the other end of the curve, there are very informal events (a house or apartment party), for which it's also common practice for everyone to bring something along, in this case to help the party cause. Even though you are certainly entitled to show up empty-handed, it's generally bad form in these situations. Unless you plan to drink only tap water all evening.

For everything in between (barbecue, birthday party), it's a bit fuzzier. If you're really in doubt, you can always ask the host whether you can bring anything, although you are technically not obligated to do so. If you think about it, the whole point of HOSTING is just that: it's an opportunity to take care of guests and show them a good time, which shouldn't mean that they feel obliged to pitch in. [Addressing the creeping and somewhat pernicious influence of "potluck" culture will have to wait for another column.]

But back to the question of what to bring... We'll speak here to more formal occasions...the informal events seem to work themselves out. And to reiterate these are GUIDELINES, not rules, as you've got take every occasion by the each.

Host gift guideline #1: Keep it simple. Bottle of wine, chocolates, flowers--something you think the host will enjoy. And something consumable or perishable, that presumably won't have to remain in your host's life indefinitely. Every gift has potential pitfalls of course. If you don't know the host very well, flowers are probably the safest on this front.

[Note to HOSTS: if a guest's gift doesn't sit right for some reason (you have given up drinking, you are on a diet, you are allergic to tulips), just smile, say thank you, and keep it to yourself for the evening...why would you want to make your guest feel bad about a gift at the very beginning of the event? You can fill them in at a later date in a discreet and polite manner, if you really find it necessary.]

Host gift guideline #2: Keep it quiet. Present your gift as soon as you arrive to whichever of the hosts receives you first. Don't wait until the hosts are in the same room or make a big show of your gift to all the other guests. Also, do not raise the subject of your gift in the course of the event. For example, if you bring a bottle of wine, don't suggest that your host crack open the bottle you brought when the bottle at the table runs dry. Or at the end of dinner, don't suggest that your host bring out those truffles you brought back from your trip to Europe. Why the cloak and dagger? Out of respect to everyone gathered. A gift should stay between you and the hosts.

Your hosts might have very specific ideas for what they wish to serve, and your suggestion that they serve it puts them in the awkward position of either changing their plans or turning down your suggestion in front of the other guests. For the other guests, your making a fuss over what you brought puts them in an awkward position if they didn't happen to bring anything. If your host does use something you brought in the course of the evening, you can acknowledge it graciously, when and if the host acknowledges the item as your gift. If you think about it, making a big deal over your own gift is like fishing for a compliment, which is no way to behave under any circumstances, and even less so when you're a guest.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Too soon for a thank you note?

Dear Mr. Steichen:

Earlier this week I had an informational interview. It went really well, and we ended up not having enough time to finish talking. My interviewer suggested we get together again later in the week, and we set up the second meeting before I left. Should I write a thank you note for the first meeting even though we are meeting again so soon?

Although it might seem like overkill, you should write a thank you note for the first meeting. For one, you should never pass up a chance to write a prompt thank you note. If you met with him once and then again a month later you would write two notes, yes? So why treat the situation differently just because the meetings are a bit closer together? He's still taking the time to meet with you on two occasions, so by all means write two notes. More important, you have no way of knowing whether the second meeting will be canceled or postponed, in which case then you'd end up having to write a belated thank you note for the first meeting, which would be less than ideal. Knowing that you will be seeing him again soon to continue your conversation, you can certainly make the note shorter than what you might otherwise write. And by all means try to get it in the mail such that it will arrive before your second meeting.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Host and Guest - do NOT try to guess who's coming to dinner

Dear Mr. Steichen:

Lately I have encountered an awkward question in the workplace. When being invited by colleagues or clients to events they sometimes say, "feel free to bring your boyfriend...or girlfriend." I assume they are trying to be inclusive and polite. They don't know me so they don't want to make assumptions. Here's the thing - I'm straight and single. Of course, I need to reply to their invitation by saying whether or not I'm bringing someone. Normally I would say "thanks, but I'll be coming on my own." Is it more or less awkward to address the implicit question about sexual orientation? I tried recently saying "thanks, I'll be coming on my own, but if you know any eligible bachelors, feel free to let me know!" I didn't say this because I'm trying to turn work functions into a dating scene, rather because it seemed more graceful than saying "thanks, I'm coming on my own and I'm not a lesbian." (Followed by the unsaid "not that there's anything wrong with that...") Can you please let me know the best way to answer, and also advise readers that even as they are trying to be inclusive, that such invitations are a bit uncomfortably phrased?

Your discomfort over the phrasing of this invitation stems from the fact that it was indeed not asked appropriately. An invitation should never be used as an opportunity to inquire about the personal life of the invitee, even more so in a professional environment. This invitation has the apparent virtue of being “inclusive,” (and this instinct is to be commended), but in fact the only sure-fire way to be politically correct is by minding your own business: “I hope you can join us for dinner Saturday. And please feel free to bring a guest.” Period. Such restraint may come off as rude in our confessional culture, but doing otherwise is far more perilous.

Congratulations to you for finding a gracious way to respond to this invitation in a way that was comfortable for you, and also did not land you in an icky “but some of my best friends are lesbians” trap. That fact that you were able to think creatively on your feet, however, does not make the question any more appropriate. If anything, it placed you in the impolite situation of seeming to turn a professional engagement into an episode of The Bachelorette, which was clearly not your intention. Furthermore, for all they know, you could be recently separated, divorced, or widowed…conditions that are increasingly available to people of all sexual orientations. Your sensitive host would doubtless be horrified to make such a faux pas. Lesson learned: unless you can ask in an appropriately informed manner, don’t get too personal with invitations.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

You don't have to live like this: Eat your food!

Eat your food. We all heard it growing up as mom and dad enjoined us to clean our plates. Now we’ve got an even better reason: climate change. Seriously: when you let food go to waste, that means you have to get more, which means a bigger carbon footprint (not to mention money NOT spent on that down payment for a home or that cross-country road trip). Before you hit the grocery store, what’s in your refrigerator? If you’re not excited about using that broccoli that you know you need to eat in the next two days, think about polar bears drowning and disappearing Andean lakes. Or turn your fridge into a game of “Oregon Trail.” Big shout out those old enough to have used those fabulously boxy Apple computers...for a walk down memory lane check out Remember how you and your pioneer family had to make do with your provisions until you reached the Willamette valley? You certainly wouldn’t turn your nose up at those veggies in the middle of a Wyoming winter. Eat your food.

Workplace Gossip - to indulge or avoid?

Dear Mr. Steichen:

Yesterday we had a staff retreat at work and afterwards all went out to happy hour, which turned into happy hours after all the supervisors left. It was really great to bond with my coworkers (I just started this month) and they are lots of fun, but inevitably they all started gossiping and filling me in on all the dirty dark secrets of the office. I’m glad that they feel like I’m one of the gang and are willing to get me in the loop, however, I know participating in this kind of talk isn’t necessarily the smartest thing professionally. Being chummy with your co-workers can definitely come in handy, but how chummy is too chummy?

Office gossip is hard to resist. You’re right that socializing with coworkers can help build rapport, but it can also go downhill fast if leisure time turns into a complaint-fest. There are myriad reasons to avoid talking shop off the clock, apart from your correct reaction that, however seductive it may be, such behavior is always professionally suspect. More devastating for the purposes of good living, however, is the fact that it is almost always unbearably tedious. Who wants to listen to so-and-so dish about Ms. X’s awful taste in skirts or Mr. Y’s unbecoming hair plugs? Wasn’t sixth grade bad enough the first time around? Yawn.

There’s also a more self-interested reason: your employer is presumably not paying you to talk work off the clock, so leave your work at work for God’s sake. If what you’re discussing is really so vital, take time to discuss it during normal business hours--you know, when you’re being paid.

The most gracious way to head off such behavior is first, don’t engage. If your colleagues want to spill their guts, that’s their right (cue “God Bless the USA”) but don't egg them on or reciprocate in the conversation. A neutral "Oh really?" works well for this. If the talk doesn’t peter out on its own, try to change the subject at an opportune time with a lighthearted "well, you know every office has their different personalities" and try to steer the conversation to something else like movies, music, your weekend plans--you know, things you do when you’re NOT working. Finally, if it continues unabated, graciously excuse yourself, citing whatever neutral pretext you wish—catching your train, walking your dog, calling your mother. And think twice about accepting next time you’re invited out for drinks with colleagues.