What a month of hosting dinner parties taught me about life
By Shaylyn Romney Garrett
As of a month ago, I very rarely invited friends over to my house. It just felt like there was always a reason not to: I’m too busy. It’s too much work. I can’t afford to make a fancy meal. I’d have to find someone to watch my daughter. My house is a mess.
But these “reasons” were actually just excuses—artificial barriers I’d constructed to keep my private life private, and to stave off the vulnerability of showing my friends what was behind the curtain of my less-than-perfect life.
I was always game for meeting up for lunch at a restaurant, or a play date in the park. But the thought of bringing people into my home felt too stressful, too exposed. It became that item on my to-do list that got perpetually bumped to the bottom.
Whether or not my trepidation about hosting social gatherings is widely shared I can’t be sure, but what is certain is that we’re all doing less and less of it. According to sociologists like Robert Putnam and Claude Fischer, one of the clearest changes in Americans’ social behaviors over the past few decades has been a marked decline in the frequency with which we’re entertaining in our homes. Similarly, neighborly get-togethers have seen a steady drop since 1940. But rates of socializing outside the home have risen.
We’re now more likely to meet friends at a softball game or a bar than to invite them over for dinner or a barbecue. The “why” behind these trends is less clear, but the reality is stark: we are living in a cultural moment where there is a growing bifurcation between our private home life and our public social life.
As part of a year-long personal journey to strengthen my own sense of community and connection, I challenged myself to host four gatherings of friends or neighbors in my home in 30 days. Considering that I work full time, live on a budget, am the mother of a small child, and haven’t hosted a dinner party more than a handful of times since I got married (which was over a decade ago) I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. But I wanted to see if replacing a night of Netflix with a gathering of friends might help me develop a greater sense of connection.
I completed the challenge—barely—and the transformation in how I feel about opening my home as a gathering place has been dramatic. Here are some of the lessons I learned along the way.
Cooking for Other People is a Labor of Love
Several years ago, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Jordan, where I spent two years struggling to communicate with villagers who spoke no English. And for the first few months, as I wrestled with learning Arabic, the only source of connection I really had with my hosts was food. I passed countless hours eating and drinking tea—on humble floors, on breezy rooftops, at picturesque picnics, and huddled around kerosene heaters in the teachers’ room at the school where I taught. I quickly came to understand that preparing and sharing food is one of the most universal expressions of love and friendship there is.
There’s a unique sort of bonding that is initiated when we provide sustenance to others, especially because it happens relatively infrequently in our culture. This month I found that the people I invited to my table experienced and expressed a heartfelt gratitude, even when the meal I had made was simple. They felt—as I did nearly every day in Jordan—special, taken care of, and honored by the gesture. And being on the receiving end of their appreciation turned hosting into a delight for me, whereas I used to view it mostly as a burden.
Perfection Is the Enemy of Connection
When I first started hosting people, it would take me days to prepare. The floors had to be swept and mopped, the carpets vacuumed, and the toilets scrubbed. My unfinished projects had to be gathered up and hidden away, and every marker, crayon, and toy returned to its proper place. Social media’s culture of curation has conditioned us to believe that only our most polished face is socially acceptable. We’ll have a barbeque when we finish building the deck. We’ll host a Christmas party when we finally get around to putting up lights, we think.
Once I let go of the need to put forward a perfected picture of domestic bliss, it finally felt possible to have friends in my home on a regular basis. And the freedom to be fully me—mess and all—was liberating. It was also an important part of laying the groundwork for true and meaningful connection. Our perfected selves may be magazine-worthy, but are often unapproachable, even forbidding. Look at this house—she must be some sort of domestic goddess, we think when we see a friend going for Martha Stewart gold. Perfection invites distance and comparison, rather than warmth and connection, which is what we are all after, after all.
It’s Better Together
Before I set out to host on a weekly basis, having people over was a major production—not just because of the cleaning, but because of the food. I felt that I had to have a full selection of exotic snacks and drinks on hand, and an ambitious, well-planned menu. And everything had to be elegantly displayed and ready to eat the moment my guests arrived. I quickly learned that this approach to gathering is exhausting—and totally unrealistic. And yet it’s often the Instagram-fueled standard to which we hold ourselves when we consider inviting people over.
As I began to focus more on being with my guests, rather than impressing them, I felt the Better Homes and Gardens version of hosting my mother raised me on begin to thaw. I started letting people bring things when they offered, instead of saying oh, no—we’ve got it taken care of! and then sweating my way through an entire Saturday of cooking. And as I relaxed into a pattern of preparing food with my guests—often for the first full hour of a dinner party—I felt the welcoming warmth of an ancient practice come into my home: gathering around the hearth to enjoy cooking and eating together, as a community.
Gathering Should Be a Family Affair
Speaking of things being better together, over the past month I’ve come to believe that whenever possible, kids should be included in our gathering rituals, rather than handed an iPad and told not to interrupt the conversation. When I invited friends with young kids to have dinner at our house, more than one replied that they could come only if they could find a babysitter. They were surprised that I was willing to welcome their children—and mine—to the table.
Looking back, this was another lesson I absorbed from my Jordanian hosts, whose kids were a ubiquitous part of the culture of visiting. Indeed, multi-generational socializing is likely a significant contributor to the iron-clad chain of cultural transfer that is responsible for Arabs’ world-famous hospitality. By contrast, American popular culture has fetishized the idea of entertaining as an adults-only activity, making it expensive and inconvenient, rather than a regular part of everyday life.
Like most of my Jordanian friends, I don’t have a big house, or a fancy playroom, or even a backyard to send the kids off to. But we managed just fine most of the time. I realized that by excluding my daughter from dinner parties I was missing a major teaching moment. Off in her bedroom, in front of a movie, or spending the night at a friend’s house, she wouldn’t be exposed to the rhythms and joys of preparing food, or the warm comfort of laughing with friends. When we choose not to include our children in social gatherings, we perpetuate an unnatural cultural norm of compartmentalization, and we risk setting the rising generation up for the same crippling isolation and loneliness that is rampant among adults today.
It wasn’t easy swapping my privacy and my downtime for community and connection. Yet I’ve felt happier, lighter, and more open because of it. And so have all of the friends, family members, and acquaintances that have graced my table in the last month. So much of today’s talk about community building has to do with creating spaces where people can gather. But the truth is that each of us has just such a space right in our own kitchen or living room or back porch. We just have to find the courage and resolve to invite people in.