My friends Bonnie and Frank are having a party tonight. Jane called me and said she and John will be sitting home alone.
I speak before I think and say, "Why don't you come to Bonnie and Frank's with me – I'm sure they won't mind." "Ohhhh" says Jane, "that would be lovely." Now I have to get my foot out of my mouth. I don't want to call Bonnie and ask her if I can bring Jane and John without first getting the lay of the land. So I call my friend Jo to ask her what she thinks. She says, “You know Jane and John are perfectly nice, but they never reciprocate. They come to lots of our parties but they've never made any effort to have us to their house.” She is right – they don't reciprocate; and equally as bad, they don't participate. When they come to our parties perhaps they will bring a bottle of wine, but they will drink two. So I don't ask Bonnie – I simply call Jane back and fuddle about saying I can't reach Bonnie – their house is probably too small for anyone else, stammer, stutter and feel generally stupid. I would like to say, “Hey, listen up – it's your turn now, and we're not inviting you again until you invite us.”
I remember a book, The Borrowers, about a family of tiny people that survived by borrowing. There are grown-up Borrowers – they are the ones who borrow your time, and attention, and hospitality and never return them. They are tiresome people because they generally show up at your door with a big appetite, big voice, and small contribution in terms of anything. Hopefully we are smart enough to only invite them once, but they may be business associates, or relatives, or belong to some category that deems they stay on “the list.”
Inviting guests to your home should be a joy, for you as well as the guest. The fact of the matter is that it is hard work to entertain and for that reason, some of us simply don't have the time, inclination, or knack for it. So then, how do we return the favor? Reciprocating and/or participating is not absolutely necessary for every single invitation you receive – it is for those times when you know the balance is off, when you have gone to lots of parties and feel it is your turn to do something.
There are plenty of circumstances in which someone is just not in a position to reciprocate. And just for the record – it is absolutely not necessary to think you have to reciprocate in kind. If your house just isn't suited to entertaining, or you don't cook, or you have lots of animals to which your friends are allergic, then do something else. Get a blanket and some drinks and bags of chips and tell your friends to bring their own sandwiches and meet you at the beach, or park, for a picnic. If you can't afford that financially, have all your friends meet you at the bowling alley and let them pay for themselves but go to the thrift store or dollar store and buy a few silly prizes for the best, worst, or klutziest bowler.
If you can't reciprocate in any way – then participate. Ask your host/ess if you can arrive early or stay late and help with the preparation or clean-up. Offer to bring something – the salad, the dessert, or your favorite corn souffle dish. If you're creative, bring a centerpiece, or make place cards, pick and arrange a bunch of wildflowers. It doesn't have to be expensive, just thoughtful and mindful of the event. One of my favorite things to do at a party is to take photographs and either give them to the host/ess on a disk or print the best ones out and send them to her with my thank you note.
But whatever you do – when you are asked to do so: r.s.v.p. That means, literally, “respond if you please” in French. The “if you please” part is just a courtesy of the French language. It means – respond, reply, let me know if you'll be joining us because I need to know how many people are coming – I have to buy food, drinks, set the table, make arrangements. Maybe someone wants to have dinner for eight people and if you can't make it they will invite someone else. It is far easier to r.s.v.p. than it is to entertain, so please don't ignore that courtesy.