In which we put forth sneaky ways of seeding and growing friendship and acquaintance, if not love.
Easy enough to select your guest of honor.1 To take aim and fuel your own desires with healthy fantasy. But how do you get that figment of your imagination into your home and begin the irksome and possibly impossible task of turning sweet dream into radiant flesh and laughter and warmth of all sorts? Hells of a thousand varieties lie between those states of grace. Admiring from afar is fine for a time, even forever, but if courtship insists itself upon you, if conjuring a relationship of some sort becomes a matter of importance to you, you will need correspondence. They must get near enough to touch. Words need to be exchanged and experiences shared. Coffees and tea and dinners and movies and walks in parks and along rivers and through museums and down alleyways will heighten your desire to bring them back to your home, to feed them and love them and keep them full and happy. Whoever they are that you would draw into your life. Whatever they will be when they get there. Courtship of any sort will lead to food. Even business dealings, social climbing and politickings of the finest quality take place in the dining rooms of private homes. And though the guidelines may become more formal, the process of invitation and seducing towards acceptance your desired companion or companions remains the same.
For now, and to avoid such subjects more likely to prove nauseating than entertaining, let us suppose you have only the most humble and honest of courtship aims. Friendship. Love. Camaraderie, casual or commercial. How will you invite that other to your home? Under what pretext and with what level of formality do you invite them? How far in advance and by what means? How do you arrive at the point where an invitation to dinner is not presumptuous? What series of events, of previous invitations leading to one of significance, must take place? A difficult enough puzzle of tasks even before considering the many instances when to convince the guest of importance to come at all you might have to round up a slightly larger party. How do you invite these people, in what attitude, when, and for what? And once they are assembled, what path do you take to midnight, the object of your interest in your home and well fed, your very discreet and well-mannered friends having made their excuses and vanished into the night? There you are, alone together, and there is no further counsel to be had here.2
Nuts and bolts sorts of stuff, mind you, and hard to focus upon when you are only thinking about larger desires. Whom did you invite, and how? To what and for what apparent “why”? How did you get the desirable one to agree to attend this little event? None of this is easy, even for the accomplished professional. Many are the morsels whose defining characteristic at first appears to be “Elusive.” Many are the friends who cannot be trusted in the company of someone you are trying to impress. Few are the evenings or mornings or afternoons when everything comes together and the next day you wander through your responsibilities basking in the warmth of having gotten it right the day before. It might be as close as we come to divinity: all-giving and full of grace.3
there are several approaches to inviting people to your home for a meal. Some are more dependable than others. Some are almost always more off-putting than inviting. None of them work flawlessly on every occasion. Before exploring the ins and outs of a longer guest list, let’s look at how you will get yourself and your would-be beloved4 into a private home, any private home, with the purpose of sharing a meal.
Often a pretext is useful. The way into another’s heart is never through portals that open broadly onto the street. A maze to be negotiated, griffins at the gate, dogs to be distracted with loaves of bread, locks and traps to be unwound and undone. Perhaps they have a painting you would like to see, an art collection of some reputation. Maybe in conversation they mention a newly built porch you could admire or flowers recently planted. You meet at their house before going to a movie or a play or a club. In many cases it is easier to get yourself invited to someone else’s home than to get them into your own. Once you have made that first brief visit, which should be very brief and encompass no more than a cup of coffee or a single drink, you are in an excellent position to later invite them to your own home for a more lengthy visit. Dinner perhaps. Reversed, this is a method of getting yourself invited to someone else’s house. Invite them into your own home for some silliness of purpose. They will naturally admire your taste in abodes and insist you must come see their home sometime. “I’d love to,” you reply. Is it possible that neither of you have homes worth visiting? Or that one of you has a home pleasant to be in and the other an ill-kept or otherwise uncomfortable and uninviting place of residence? If the latter is you, fix it or accept that you can be found wanting for such oversight and insensibility. If the latter is the other, wonder and consider why that might be and whether or not it bothers you.
When conversation allows it, mention that you occasionally cook for friends. Don’t mention that you do it well. Just that you do. How easy then to include them in the next dinner party. Not threatening. The sort of thing a potential mate might regard as very attractive in the possible other. The ability to entertain casually. The having of friends. That’s a good sign. Better still, the sharing of friends. In some circles, perhaps all circles, an expression of highest regard.5
Of course, there is no reason you cannot invite someone straight-away to your home for dinner or ask them to accompany you to dinner at the home of another.6 However you do it—and there are a thousand thousand ways and means—make them feel comfortable and want to say Yes. Present the occasion as an existing thing and offer them a sincere and unassuming invitation to join in. Set them at ease and dissolve any concern they might have that you are asking too much of them too quickly. While you are bracing yourself for rejection and rehearsing in your head your casual acceptance of a cruel “No”, try to remember that there is a second being with all their quirks of character involved and listen carefully for clues which will improve your chances of a sweet “Yes” on the next occasion. For example, some people are enormously nervous in groups of more than four or five, and would never attend a party that was to be larger than that. Others won’t go anywhere so dangerous as another’s house unless they are sure there will be a huge crowd and that they will know two or three amongst them. You might not be able to know this beforehand, and you might offer the wrong thing. Don’t alter the form to try to suit them.7 Say something like, “Oh, sorry. Another time then.” Don’t forget to add, “Please feel free to change your mind. I know you would enjoy the others who will be there.” On another not terribly distant occasion spontaneously invite them to something else which is equally written in stone. You never know what people will decide to do, what change of heart you might inspire by your kindness and lack of judgment.
If even so unassuming an invitation seems still too familiar, consider accumulating smaller moments, something like building blocks toward real courtship.
For example, as an alternative to the too too brusque technique of sidling up beside the one whose laugh captivates you and inviting them away for a passion-filled weekend in Rome, you stop by their desk, or office, or home or you call first, but in any case you say, “I’m on my way to the cafe X for a latté. Want to join me?” Or perhaps one Tuesday in the early evening you call them up and say, “I’m going to go see the new Almodovar film at 7:05 at the Kabuki. Would you like to join me?” The specific request gives them something to say Yes or No to. Maybe they already saw it, but inquire “Would you consider seeing the new Stallone film at 7:20 instead?” Maybe you would, maybe you wouldn’t.8 Maybe they are busy—most people have plans for tonight—but they have the occasion to say, “No, I can’t. My mother is helping me build a cabinet tonight. But I’d love to another time. Call me again.”9 The goal is to accumulate a countless number of such incidents.10 A few such casual afternoon minutes over coffee or barrels of popcorn in the dark, and you are well on your way to long evenings at home, not alone.
the larger party
Now, whom else should you invite? This is a very hard part. One handy rule of thumb is: Whoever calls that week gets invited. Right up until the first round of cocktails is served. Past that, be curt and say, “I have twenty people here. I’ll call you later.” Maybe dig up a friend or two that you don’t see enough of and invite them. Sometimes such haphazard casting is disastrous but more often it is magic. There is a moment an hour before or the day before when you roll through your mind who will be coming for dinner, and you will think to yourself, “Oh no, what have I done?” Those are the best nights. And if such a dinner or party is combined with the more sweet presence of someone you actually adore and plan to flirt with, all the better if the party is not composed of your inner circle who might feel called upon to tease you, to bring up historical topics best left untouched for a few more days, or forget in their loud and ancient intimacy that there is a stranger among you.
A motley and less than usual collection of dinner companions can be a warmer climate. They won’t notice that you are paying more attention to this guest than you have to others, or that your attention is of a slightly different quality. Give them enough to eat and drink, introduce them thoroughly to each other, and they won’t notice anything at all. Your most precious guest will have plenty of time to acclimate themselves to the surroundings during the chaos of preparing and enjoying dinner in sparkling company. You can pay discreet attention to them, allowing yourself to be occupied with dinner or with others if they seem to need a little time to observe. You can enjoy opportunities to anticipate their needs and fill them, or you can practice not being overly attentive. You can watch the other in a social group, and that other can watch you, and you both can learn lots. No one feels awkward for having nothing to say, even for hours.11
You can do this in the company of your very closest friends as well, but it might be a trial by fire for all involved. Friends will watch you closely, observing your prey, comparing qualities to those of a former love. Very dangerous ground to walk so early. On the other hand, if your friends are kind and trustworthy, and lucky you if they are, they can be the perfect solution to dilute the concentrated stuff between you and another, dissolving what could be poisonous to something fairly therapeutic. Also, if you have chosen your friends well over the years and cared for them properly, they are extremely valuable eyes through which to observe a new love. One sometimes useful ploy is to invite them all over, plus your preferred one and another stranger or two. Don’t tell everyone about the hoped-for romance. Enjoy the evening and see what your friends think of your new companion.12 Imply, if you like, that you are without designs so your friends won’t be tempted to be nice. See if they think you should maybe have some designs. See if your would-be-amour likes your friends. See how they all behave themselves.
Still unsure about how the invitation should take place? Think some more. Be creative at the same time as you are thoughtful and compassionate. Considerate of their position, current or dissolving attachments, fears and feelings. No need to worry or sculpt your behavior to these elements, but consideration and compassion are always appropriate. They build patience and tolerance which are invaluable during courtship. Invaluable at all times. If there is already a friendship or a textured acquaintance13 between you and the one you wish to spend more time with, it can be easy enough to simply invite them over for dinner. Alone even. For no reason and with frankness of purpose: “Come over for dinner tonight.” If tonight is bad, ask them to pick a night. How hard is that? Too hard. Too direct. Too without reason. Not spontaneous, you whine. Oh, for heaven’s sakes. Be indirect then. It works almost as well. Perhaps after a long afternoon of hunting down a particular piece of scuba equipment or the perfect gift for someone’s mom, or at the end of a strenuous hike up and down a nearby mountain, or a cultural expedition through a city’s galleries and museums, you return to your house and because you are not stupid, you spontaneously and effortlessly suggest they stay and have a bite to eat. Make it be the easiest thing in the world. Pull garlic bread from your freezer. Make a delicious pasta from whatever you have in your refrigerator. Heat up a myriad of leftovers from an Indian feast the night before. Make an omelet. Order a pizza. If they are game, send them to the store for some fresh ingredient you couldn’t possibly have had on hand, or for a bottle of wine. Or go yourself, leaving them with something to nibble, something to drink and the leisure to explore your house unobserved. Make it seem effortless. Make it be effortless. Continue talking and listening while you prepare whatever it is. Spill something all over yourself so that you have to go take a quick shower and change into something more comfortable. If they are filthy from a long day of exercise and adventure, invite them to take advantage of your bathroom. Which is clean, of course.14 Give them comfy clothes to borrow, preferably things you can spare as they may never be returned. Feed them something appropriate and delicious and not intimidating. This is not the time to try a tricky new recipe. Not the time to impress them with your famous scampi flambé.
did you notice that all of the above techniques rest rather solidly on the assumption that you have some sort of correspondence in the first place? It is difficult to invite someone to your home for dinner, to find yourself in the enviable position of feeding their divine selves with earthly foods when you do not have occasion to speak with them. Hard to ask someone you just met in a bar to your home. I really can’t offer any tips for that scenario. On the other hand, the desired one might be someone you don’t know but someone you know knows. In which case, your friend can easily invite that person to your house as their guest. A few hints usually work, or the very direct, “Come for dinner and bring that friend of yours.” You might also generously support the courtships of others by extending such invitations.
Inviting people and not inviting people to any event is always an exercise in wisdom, wit, and usually incompetence as well. Modern folk seem to seldom possess the manners and independence which would make them both easy to invite and to not invite. They don’t respond when they do receive an invitation, complain if they don’t receive an invitation early enough, show up late, and all too often arrive so frantic from a busy day you rather wish they had had the good sense to stop at a spa or a bar on their way over.
And that’s when they are on the invitation list.
Friends who discover they weren’t included might sulk, fish for an invitation, or even show up unannounced.15 Their bad behavior can in turn be credited back to you in part if you have been at all elusive or dishonest about throwing a party in order to avoid confronting those who weren’t included. Get over it. Like they invite you to every party they throw. Be honest. Call them up for recipes. Tell them whom you are inviting and gossip about who’s doing what these days. Before you finish the conversation say, “I’ll let you know how the evening goes.” Coyness and evasion will be interpreted badly, here as anywhere. Don’t be tempted. As long as there is some reason why the guest list is limited, they should be able to accept not making the cut.16 And you need to live with the truth that when you exclude people, no matter how real your reasons, feelings can be hurt.
We are still left with the question, Whom to Invite, and of course, How to Invite Them. I am alone in this practice, but I find that never inviting anyone you don’t like works well. If they happen to call that week, don’t mention the party. I don’t care how old an acquaintance they are. I don’t care if they have invited you to their home on several occasions.17 You are never, as far as I am concerned, required to invite unpleasant people to dinner. Never never never required to cook for them if they do happen to show up at your home. Claim you have dinner reservations and offer them a quick drink of tap water. Leave your house yourself if they won’t.
Whom you should invite is anyone you enjoy, whose company is nourishment to your soul. You are feeding them. They can feed you. You should invite anyone who is simply nice to have around. Sweet people make a wonderful side dish at a spicy party. No one you will have to protect, though. Invite people who talk and people who listen, especially if they happen to be the same people. If possible, and palatable, invite relatives for non-family parties. It confuses them and makes you their favorite relation. Invite people who have invited you to their home and whom you like enough to see again. If you never return an invitation, you won’t get a lot more from that source. Which might be just fine. Invite people you barely know at the lightest opportunity. If you are not courting anyone in particular, court the world in general. Which is not to say issue an APB about your dinner or garden party, but relax a little about exactly how many people are going to be at the table. Encourage friends to bring friends. Never say no, unless you have a most excellent and urgent reason.18 Who knows what they might bring by.
Now, how are you going to invite these select few? In person or via missile of some sort? Is there a reason for the gathering? How far in advance are you letting out the word? What atmosphere are you hoping to attain? Are you clever? Formal? Do you have a fax modem? E-mail?
If it is very spontaneous, as is likely if you are planning to cook, phone calls and messages, email and passing comments will do. If there is an occasion involved as well, the fax or email is wonderful as you can include a great deal of information, more than you would be comfortable leaving on voice mail or with the distracted ten-year-old who is taking your message, and they get it as quickly as possible. Assuming their fax or computer is in their home or in their office. Don’t send difficult-to-get faxes for social reasons. Electronic mail if it works for everyone works very well. Whatever message sending ability you have, use it.19 Invite everyone and make sure they all know how to get to your home. Send very good directions. Evenings are ruined by an hour spent lost because of bad directions.
If you have anything over a week of notice, feel free to mail a real, physical invitation.20 Your options are endless. From the silliest postcard to the most abstruse poetic parlance. Paper, fabric, wood, metal, small packages of trinkets or herbs; I’ve seen so much and have much more to see. You can make your point and impress your friends and their colleagues with your style, if not with your foresight. In any case, if there is information beyond, “Come by for dinner around eight on Saturday.” a written message of some sort is probably not only in good taste but in good sense as well. If it is someone’s birthday or other celebration, a theme, or if there is some other activity to be pursued, they will want to be prepared, want to have some clue how to dress, want know if children are welcome, what sorts of moods will be acceptable, and like that.
Also take note: An interesting, intriguing invitation can sometimes rile difficult-to-get guests out of their homebound languor. An invitation can set the atmosphere of the party and prepare your guests such that they arrive molten, having spent the days since receiving the invitation sinking into your notion of celebration.
However you do it, get them there. Then make them glad they came.
1 Easy enough, anyway, to make a poor selection. To choose unwisely. All the more reason to get them to your home, to cook for them, to start learning more about them in the revealing arena of an offered and shared meal, to become wise concerning them, and then get on with it. Of course, now they know where you live and if your selection is very very poor, you may have a problem. See footnote 3.
2 Other chapters of this book will escort you as far as that wild shore. Note especially Graciousness and The Technical Production.
3 Monstrous sorts who do not understand generosity without agenda will ruin your mood. It makes them nervous and suspicious. There is no good solution. Offer them nothing. Make them ask for it. Then say no about two-thirds the time. The rest of the time say yes, but act as though it is a great effort for you. Later, if they become comfortable enough to accept normal gestures of goodwill from you, they will regard your generosity as something they have won and which is special to them. Then terrible trouble because they might well notice that you treat a number of friends similarly. A fight ensues. You try to explain. They think you are sleeping with the neighbor because you lent them some olive oil. As I said. There is nothing much to do with these people. Maybe it is best after all to just treat them well and watch them squirm. Maybe they will get used to it.
4 If it is already your beloved, you should have no problem getting them to the table. In fact, you may damage the affair beyond repair if you neglect to invite them to a private dinner.
5 Don’t underestimate this, nor the separating force of refusing to share friends.
6 No, you won’t be the impressively casual cook, but who cares? A well-fed person is a well-fed person. As long as the host doesn’t have any extracurricular interest in your companion, you should be fine.
7 It probably doesn’t even exist anyway. You made it up as a pretext for inviting them to your home. If you change your story mid-stream you will be busted. On the other hand, honesty is always good.
8 I find such a negotiation is itself worth several dates worth of getting-to-know-you.
9 You should be a sufficiently skilled interpreter of the human voice to tell if it was a sincere if small disappointment that they can’t join you, or if they just made up that bit about their mother having time for woodworking to put off saying, “No way, not with you, never with you.” Err in your own favor once or twice and then catch the hint.
10 Countless because you are not keeping count, not because there are so many you can’t count them. Of course you can count them. The trick is not to.
11 This does depend on the clamor and jabbering of a relaxed, opinionated and non-judgmental crowd. How to encourage such a melee instead of the too-frequent and excruciating dullness of people reluctant to offer their intimate selves and most honest thoughts, for whatever reason, is currently a mystery to me. Sometimes I think it has to do with the projection of the host, whether or not that person is conversant and interested in thoughts and views beyond their own. Whether guests are thoughtlessly confident that they will not be deemed idiots or jerks for any opinion or question they might care to offer, or whether they sense that a party line must be towed and so close up their interesting selves for the night and talk only about investments and golf and previous episodes of revelry. Sometimes I think it has all to do with lighting. Obviously, a room filled with sparkling eyes and an ocean of mingling voices and laughter does depend on having a nice supply of thinking, loving people, and a great dirth of attention-starved pedants.
12 And see what you think of your current circle in the context of this new, possibly wonderful thing you have attracted. It is not unheard of for a smitten soul to suddenly decide all their pals are monstrous and dull in contrast and to drop them wholesale. In one legendary case, a lover threw out an address book altogether. Too bad later when she left him. But would she have stayed for even those few lovely moments if she had known the truth about the company he had been keeping? And is he not better off for having to find new friends at a higher standard? Hard to say.
13 What does THAT mean? Tony asks all the hard questions. I mean you are not friends, but recognize each other as interesting and somewhat kindred souls. That you would not choose their shoulder to cry on, but you might later tell them about what upset you. A potential friend in the right series of circumstances. Someone who falls between your best friend and your best friend’s sister’s business partner in the hierarchy of your heart.
14 Oh, here is a book all by itself: How to Keep Your Bathroom from Ruining Your Chance at Romance. Learn how to clean a bathroom, and then do it regularly. Or hire someone, and have them clean the rest of your house as well. A disgusting bathroom has kept more women from spending the evening in increasing states of undress at the home of another than perhaps anything besides bad personal hygiene. Of course, if you smelled bad and looked slimy, they probably wouldn’t have spent the day with you, wouldn’t have agreed to let you make them dinner, and wouldn’t have found their way into your bathroom in the first place. Don’t mess up your momentum. The sink, the counters and all the paraphernalia on them, the tub, the toilet, the floors, walls and ceiling, and the towels are all things that must be cleaned often. Sorry. And knowing you will snap at me for sexism, I will say I have met men who care, but women care more often. Way more often. Maybe because they are arranged in such a way that they are more vulnerable to disease. Maybe because many of them never get as filthy as men do to begin with. I couldn’t say. But women don’t respond well to a scary bathroom, unless, of course it’s their own. This would be further discussed in yet another book: The Effects of 400 Years of Peculiar Sexism on Daily Behavior and Perception.
15 I now avoid the whole thing by never having a list and inviting everyone I speak to between the time I decide to have a party and the actual start of that party. The toughest thing about this approach is remembering that everyone doesn’t do it this way.
16 If you seem to be inviting everyone but them, you should maybe ask yourself why.
17 If they are truly terrible, you should also decline invitation. Then you will not feel the need to reciprocate. If you do accept invitations from people you dislike, it might be time for a little heart to heart with yourself.
18 For example, the suggested guest is another, more important guest’s loathed ex-spouse. “No,” you might say, “I don’t really think they would enjoy the party much. Maybe another time.”
19 Whatever you use, don’t assume it works perfectly. It is little solace the day after a party to learn that a message was lost.
20 You can send out invitations even later than that, but you do risk getting calls from disgruntled invitees who suffered the vagaries of the mail service and received the invitation after the event. To diminish the risk of social repudiation, call everyone to let them know that an invitation is on its way and to please come whether they receive it in time or not.