New Year’s Eve 2020 found me at the apartment of a friend. It felt like a magical experience: being in the physical presence of a couple of humans after almost a year of distance. Being among people was something I was slowly getting used to again, so I was a little hesitant, but this friend made my visit a delight. I walked into her home feeling cold (thanks to the fierce Midwestern winter). On perceiving this, my friend offered me a pair of her slippers. 

She had spread a table with homemade hummus and cookies. On the stove, she had cider, cocoa, and hot water for tea. She had bought some fresh carnations from Costco, and she had even made a sparkly 2021 banner, in case we wanted to welcome in the brand new year by taking a picture with it. Later in the evening, she offered me an electric blanket. At midnight, she let us choose between champagne, sparkling grape juice, or Mountain Dew to toast with.

I walked away from that evening feeling not only happy to have spent a couple lovely hours with friends, but well-cared-for. This friend had thought of everything—her reception of me and her other guests demonstrated not “effortlessness”—that coveted quality we now strive for in every facet of life from fashion to home decor—but, rather, a deep understanding of herself and her guests. Her preparations reflected her. I took a profound lesson away from that evening: whether you’re meeting a friend in the park or inviting a few friends over for a quiet evening, a meaningful gathering is determined less by the type of food you eat, where you meet, or what you do, and more by the attentive way you care for those with whom you gather.

Immersive hosting: taking a cue from Emily Post

In her classic volume on etiquette, Emily Post discusses how being a good guest requires flexibility, the ability to enter into the host’s way of living and the activities she suggests, if only for a few hours. She also points out that a host should possess a similar attentiveness:

She must first of all consider the inclinations of her guests. . . . At the same time, she must not fuss and flutter and get agitated and seemingly make efforts on their behalf. Nothing makes a guest more uncomfortable than to feel his host or hostess is being put to a great deal of bother or effort on his account.

To me, this also means that the host shouldn’t operate as if she were separate from her guests, always serving food and actively checking on people throughout the gathering. Rather, she ideally should partake in enjoying with her guests the arrangements she’s made. The art of attentiveness allows for both mindfulness towards the needs of guests as well as participation in conversation and activities with them.

Not fussing or fluttering does not mean a good hostess does not care about or for her guests. Quite the contrary. The result of partaking in the gathering, Post implies, is that the host is more able to anticipate the guests’ needs. Post mentions the host’s role in guiding conversation: “She brings each guest forward in turn to the center of the stage.” When gathering friends who don’t know each other well or those who feel anxious in social situations, the host is able to guide guests into smooth interaction, bringing up connections between various guests, and asking guests to share particular stories that will elicit questions and greater participation in the conversation.

Besides tending to social needs, the immersive host is also able to read other needs of her guests. Are they comfortable? Do they have enough food and drink? Do they seem to be looking for something on the table or in the room that they can’t find? By also being aware of her own needs (like if she’s feeling too warm or too cool), the host is better able to meet the potential needs of her guests in a more direct way than if she opts only to be a server at the gathering rather than a participant.

Closing the “meaning gap” in our gatherings

In an interview with WBUR, Priya Parker, the author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, makes clear that gathering for a defined, particular purpose is important, closing what she calls the “meaning gap.”

The biggest mistake we make when we gather is we assume that the purpose is obvious. . . . These forms [like how to give a good birthday party or wedding reception] take over our need to actually first say, “Why are we doing this in the first place?” And when you don’t actually first just ask, “Why are we doing this?” gatherings tend to be either irrelevant or boring or just repetitive.

This isn’t to knock the casual hangout, but to offer an invitation to ask, as Parker suggests, “What do I need this gathering to be?” “What do my guests need it to be?” In her TED talk, Parker gives the example of a baby shower oriented less toward receiving gifts, and more toward receiving stories and encouragement to address the fears and uncertainties of the new mother and father.

In a similar vein, a couple years ago I invited friends to a Prufrock Party, a gathering focused around reading T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Since I knew this get-together would be a bit out of some of my friends’ element (as an English major, I already knew and loved this poem, while some of my friends did not have much exposure to it), I included in the invitation a list of things that would happen throughout the course of the evening. We would take toast and tea, play a literary game, and then read the poem. I gave them a link to a graphic novel rendition of the poem for those who might want to look at it before the party. The specificity of this gathering made it memorable—my friends still mention that gathering with joy at the recollection.

Letting your personality shine through your gatherings

Post aptly says, “If you take someone under your roof, he becomes part of, and sharer in, your life and possessions.” I felt this way a couple weeks ago when a friend invited me to a picnic in a park. We hadn’t seen each other in awhile, and the feeling when stepping onto her picnic blanket was that of entering a place that was hers. This friend provided all the fixings for veggie tacos, and as she set out various toppings, she smiled at me and said, “I love onions, so I made pickled onions and fried onions.” This detail delighted me. By presenting me with both types of onions, she was inviting me to share in something she loved.

Reflecting your own personality in your gatherings can be an invitation to your guests to do the same. Whether you’re inviting guests into your home or onto your picnic blanket, to share yourself is an act of vulnerability. And it can indicate to your guests that this is a time in place in which they too can be themselves.

Of course, this also requires that you make the space for your guests to be themselves, whether that’s a pause in your conversation to create space for your guest’s reply or wiggle room in your plans to create space for guests to exercise their preferences.

My New Year’s Eve host did just this. When we toasted at midnight, she had the foresight to notice that one person did not want to toast with champagne or sparkling grape juice. So, she offered to pour the guest’s drink of choice—Mountain Dew—into a wine flute so we could all be in on the midnight toast. What this highlighted about my friend was her creativity. Not only had she put together a lovely spread and a 2021 poster, she saw and knew how to creatively accommodate individual needs.

What I’ve discovered through the art of attentiveness is that it cultivates a genuineness about the gatherings I create or say “yes” to. I feel comfortable sharing what I love with my guests—my favorite beverages, games, and conversation topics. And, by the same token, I’m better able to notice the particular interests of my friends, and the individual ways in which they interact and relate. I’ve learned to be thankful for the diversity of personalities, interests, and ideas that accompany me when I spend time with friends, and gatherings are the natural outcropping of this gratitude and affection.

I used to think hosting required an extroverted personality (being excited, a people person, and wonderfully comfortable socializing). I’ve come to realize that good hosting is actually about “us.” How will we spend this time together in a way that is meaningful to all of us? The answer to this question allows me to host with confidence and purpose.