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 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.
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