Noun: The act of being hospitable; entertainment of guests

"Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." - Hebrews 13:2


People talk about hospitality. There's a whole industry that's grown up around it, one that we used to call the "hotel trade". There are hospitality suites in all sorts of places these days, and in the business world people talk about corporate hospitality, what we used to call "perks". Colleges and universities offer courses in Hospitality and Tourism, and finally, there's the famed US Southern hospitality.

Funnily enough, as I write this, the topic has been on my mind rather a lot, as I have been a beneficiary of many kinds of hospitality lately. I first really thought about it following Thanksgiving in 2004, when I was invited to one of Christine's friends' homes for the holiday. Later, in the winter of 2006, I was partway through a 2,700-mile road trip across the American South from Ann Arbor back home to Davis, and was welcomed by many noders to stay. In each case, I was welcomed into the homes of strangers, treated to great generosity and respect, and it's something that I suspect I will never forget. That's the real hospitality, right there.

Don't forget hospitality...

...or "Be not forgetful to entertain strangers", as one Bible translation has it. The English word is drawn from the Latin word hospitalitatem, whose root means "guest". The Greek is φιλοξενίας, literally "a love of strangers". The traditions of hospitality, of entertaining strangers (and friends) are strong in many cultures. There are little things we tend to do whenever someone visits, some of which are socially conditioned, some of which are from the goodness of our hearts.

Different cultures have different ways of demonstrating their welcome to strangers. Visitors are usually offered some form of refreshment, at the very least a drink and the local equivalent of a biscuit. Visiting a home in Morocco will probably mean that you are plied with mint tea almost before you have sat down. In others, the host may offer you a small gift, and in Bible times in Israel it was traditional for the host to wash the feet of travellers arriving at his door. Usually a visitor staying overnight is offered a bed for the night; often it's the host's own bed (while the host takes what we would think of as the guest room).

In the Nordic Håvmål proverbs of Odin there is counsel given both to host and guest alike:

Fire is needed by the newcomer, whose knees are frozen numb;
Meat and clean linen a man needs, who has fared across the fells.

Water, too, that he may wash before eating, handcloth's and a hearty welcome,
Courteous words, then courteous silence, that he may tell his tale

A guest should be courteous when he comes to the table
And sit in wary silence, his ears attentive, his eyes alert

The Celtic folk also took hosptality seriously. In this society, there were many clans, whose allegiance to one another varied over time, so offering hospitality also meant offering protection. To illustrate this, there's a tale told of a 17th-century chief of Clan Lamont, who turned up at the MacGregor chief's doorstep, requesting protection from his enemies. He was offered shelter, and despite the fact that other members of the MacGregor clan turned up later, claiming that the Lamont had murdered a MacGregor, the sacred law of hospitality held out, and MacGregor refused to hand his guest over, later escorting the hunted man back to his own home.

"The tactful guest will take his leave early, not linger long"

As the Håvamål Proverbs point out, it's not just the host that has responsibility for behaving with decency. The guest too, has a part to play. Imagine that you invited me into your house. You might offer me a drink, ask me to sit down. I might take an interest in your bookshelves. After a moment, you need to leave me for a moment, to baste the turkey or go to the loo. You say to me "make yourself at home", and go on your errand. Now imagine that when you come back, you find me reordering the books on the shelves. What, I wonder, is your reaction?

There are unspoken rules about being in someone else's home. In Japan the guest is expected to remove their shoes on entering, and this is the case in many Western homes too. Not for any symbolic reason, but to keep the carpets clean. Pragmatism and common sense sometimes dictate what a host requires of the guest, and a good guest will pay attention that he does not overstay his welcome, or behave in a manner that creates a barrier to being invited back. Careful observation of the habits and traditions of the household are vital, so unless you see the family members blowing their noses on the table napkins, you shouldn't either.

A guest doesn't always have to be waited on hand and foot (though in some cultures it's expected that the host should do just that). A good guest will frequently offer to perform some small chore. Oftentimes our guests have helped with clearing away and washing up after a meal, though good hospitality may preclude accepting this offer of help. This is the fine balance, making sure that your stay is not a burden. A guest who leaves their hair in the sink, wet towels in the back of a closet or dirty socks under the bed, is unlikely to be invited back. Oh, and if you have plans to reorganise my books, think again.

Finally, overstayng your welcome is not going to win friends, and it may be the easiest way to abuse your host's generosity. I had a neighbour who would "pop round for a chat" but never take off her coat (the subtle sign that she wasn't going to stay long) but would stay forever, seemingly. "Are you staying or going?", I'd ask, and she was always going after the next cup of tea. Make sure you leave before your hosts tire, unlike Edward Gorey's character from The Doubtful Guest, who overstayed its welcome by seventeen years:

It joined them at breakfast and presently ate
All the syrup and toast and a part of a plate.
It wrenched off the horn from the new gramophone,
And could not be persuaded to leave it alone.

Exploding the Eskimo Myth

I could not leave without talking about the old one about how Eskimo men will lend you their wives as a gesture of hospitality. This, surely, is the ultimate gift to a tired guest! Well, it turns out, as so many tales, to be not quite as true as is told.

There were ritual spousal exchanges, which occured with the blessing of the community elders. Some of these exchanges would serve as social bonds, rather like weddings of old were sometimes set up for political or economic advantage. It varied from place to place and time to time, but this was more like a loose, temporary marriage, in which the husbands (not the wives!) would swap homes for a short time.

The "turn up at the door and borrow a wife" thing did, apparently happen, but was neither expected nor that common. According to Snopes, husbands did occasionally lend their wives to visitors, but not in every case. Apparently it was more likely in the event that a man had more than one wife, but this is hardly the same as putting the kettle on for every guest.

I believe I will stuck to the cuppa.




For Sam and Caroline, who have redefined the word for me
And dannye and dann and Jet-poop
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hospitality
The Straight Dope

Hos`pi*tal"i*ty (?), n.; pl. Hospitalities (#). [L. hospitalitas: cf. F. hospitalit'e.]

The act or practice of one who is hospitable; reception and entertainment of strangers or guests without reward, or with kind and generous liberality.

Given to hospitality. Rom. xii. 13.

And little recks to find the way to heaven By doing deeds of hospitality. Shak.

 

© Webster 1913.

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