Hostess With The Mostest

Being A Good Host Has Nothing To Do With Cooking

What’s the point of a pristine soufflé if your guests are feeling awkward?

by Anna Goldfarb
Originally Published: 
hands doing the OK sign in a silver platter, because you can be a good host without being a good coo...
Stocksy, Margaret Flatley/Bustle

I recently attended a housewarming party where the hostess asked me to pick the soundtrack. Not only was it fun to take over the stereo system, but it made me care more about the party’s success, since I played a small role in pulling it off.

The truth is, being a terrific host is about more than what you serve your guests on a plate. You can be the most decorated chef on the planet, but what good is a pristine Gruyère and chive soufflé if your guests are uncomfortable? Who cares if you’ve curated the best Christmas hits playlist of all time when your guests feel neglected? The counterintuitive way to create the perfect dinner party is to simply lighten up, ask for help, and possibly even loosen your standards. Your true job as a host isn’t to create perfection, anyway — it’s to create a shared sense of belonging for your guests.

“We’re social animals. We need community, love, and belonging, but perfectionism tells us we have to earn that by doing things well,” says Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist and author of How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anixety. Think about it: You don’t gravitate toward your friends because of how well they perform tasks. “We like our friends because of how they make us feel, their characteristics, and how we interact with them,” she says, “not whether they can cook a good meal.”

Use your friends’ talents to your advantage.

It feels like we should take on the whole burden of the event ourselves, as if it would be rude to expect our guests to help. And yet when my friend asked me to play DJ, I was excited. It makes people feel good when their advice is sought, suggests a study by behavioral scientists and professors at Harvard Business School.

The counterintuitive way to create the perfect dinner party is to lighten up, ask for help, and possibly even loosen your standards.

Even if you’re a seasoned host, a great way to get your friends excited about your event is to solicit their opinions on things like food, decor, and other party specifics. If you have a friend who’s a bit of a wine snob, tell her what you’re making and ask her for her best recs; if you know someone who’s into party games, ask them to suggest a few. It shows you value their perspective and that you’re approaching the event as a team. You’ll make people feel valued before they’ve even stepped foot in your home.

Minimize awkwardness by giving people a road map.

Crucially, all this advice-soliciting secretly accomplishes another key to making your guests feel at home: letting people know what to expect. Our brains are prediction machines. That’s great when the world operates as we expect, but this can create anxiety when a situation is uncertain or ambiguous. If you’ve ever felt weird not knowing whether a party was a shoes-on or shoes-off situation, you know what I mean.

I was relieved when a friend indicated “No gifts, please” on the invitation for her daughter’s fourth birthday party. It saved me from having a panic attack in Target trying to guess which Elsa doll to purchase for her kiddo.

Your guests will be better served if you spend more time anticipating their questions than creating an Instagram-worthy stack of profiteroles. Let them know the basics ahead of time: start and end times, available food and dietary accommodations, expected attire, whether kids or pets are allowed, if costumes are encouraged, if alcohol will be provided or if guests should plan to bring their own, or any RSVP deadlines. Try running the invitation across a few trusted people before sending it to your wider circle so you can incorporate any feedback.

You can even explain what a guest’s non-reply to your invitation means. Say something like, “If I don’t hear back from you by [date], then I will assume you cannot attend.” Or, “If I don’t hear back from you by [date], then I’ll assume turkey is fine to serve for dinner.” Minimize uncertainty and your guests will spend less time fretting and more time relaxing in your home.

Chill. If the host isn’t having fun, no one’s having fun.

Uptight hosts are stressful to be around as they’re hissing displeasure at minor annoyances. That kind of energy is awkward for your guests, who most likely aren’t even noticing whatever trivial issue you’re fixating on.

If you find making desserts from scratch to be too fussy, just order the damn pumpkin pie. If a casual buffet brunch is more your style than a sit-down dinner party, by all means, do that. Do everything you can to make sure you enjoy your own party.

Not to brag, but I managed to accomplish this last year during a Hanukkah party. At one point, I looked around the dinner table and noticed my family eating latkes, laughing, and smiling. It’s corny, but enjoying the love swirling around me truly helped me stay in the moment.

If it helps, think of it this way: Every event is a chance to learn a little more about the art of hospitality. If you look at hosting as a skill you can improve over time rather than a one-time recital or performance, then the pressure will ease.

The party may be over, but your hosting duties are not!

The next day, thank people for attending your party. If you asked for their advice, this is a great time to let them know how you thought it turned out! Share any photos you took with them, too. It’ll make them feel like their presence mattered to you.

By paying attention to how your guests feel — and by keeping your perfectionism in check — it won’t matter if you serve lukewarm pizza rolls or a five-course feast. What matters is that you took the time to make everyone feel welcome and valued.

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