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.

1 comment:

Blume said...

Super advice, Mr. Steichen.

If you know the host(s) very well, almost anything can be appropriate. One of the best hostess gifts I ever received was Jacque Pepin's book 'The Apprentice'.