A few months back, I was invited to a house party for just a few people. I arrived and engaged the hosts with the most charm I could muster. The evening ended and all was well, until I suddenly remembered my manners. I didn’t bring a gift. Not wine, not beer, not chocolate. I arrived completely empty-handed. I was mortified.
My faux pas prompted me to think of how others handle this old-fashioned custom that is not well-practiced anymore. I thought of a man of an older generation who would never think of showing up at a doorstep with nothing to offer. He leaves his home 10 minutes early, swings by the store, and grabs a thing or two. At the door, he presents the small gift, and immediately he is thanked with profuse appreciation.
He never fails to do this. I fail to do this often. But I’m making a change. His way is better. He is gracious to his host and his habit provides a personal benefit too. He is known for his thoughtfulness and generosity. He reinforces this reputation with every small gesture.
Mom Was Right
Thinking back to what Mom taught me, I’m pretty sure that bringing a small gift to the hosts was a common convention, not enforced by the state, but an emergent practice that makes life more elegant. She tried to teach it to me.
It’s such a small thing, but it illustrates a big idea. That idea is about uncoerced mutual giving, a recognition that when someone does something nice for you, it is a good practice to show your appreciation.
Emily Post explains it well:
A gift for your host or hostess is a lovely way to thank them for their hospitality and is always appreciated. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive; simply consider the nature of the occasion and local custom when making your choice. In some parts of the country, a hostess gift is considered obligatory, while in other places a gift is brought only on special occasions. If it’s the first time you’re visiting someone’s home, then it’s a very nice gesture to bring a small gift. If you have a few extra minutes to wrap it, even if you only use tissue or a decorative bag, it adds to the gesture.
Wine, flowers, specialty food items, and small items for the house all make good hostess gifts. Flowers are terrific too, but if you want to go beyond Etiquette 101, bring them in a simple vase (a Mason jar is fine). You could also offer to put them in water yourself when you arrive so your host doesn’t have to arrange them. If you bring wine, don’t expect your host to serve it that evening – the wines may have already been chosen for the meal. And don’t bring food for the meal unless you’ve been asked to. Otherwise you risk putting your host on the spot and upsetting the menu.
Her explanation saves us all some time and research, and helps us better navigate the complex world of social engagement. This is why I’m a huge fan of etiquette books, which, for some reason, tend to really annoy people. People often imagine that such books are hectoring them to adhere to all kinds of rules that impinge on their freedom of action.
On the contrary, when you consider that etiquette is an informal code of rules outside of law and legislation, you see that such books reflect the civilizing outcomes of the exercise of freedom.
As Henry Hazlitt writes:
It is true that a part of any code of manners is merely conventional and arbitrary, like knowing which fork to use for the salad, but the heart of every code of manners lies much deeper. Manners developed, not to make life more complicated and awkward (though elaborately ceremonial manners do), but to make it in the long run smoother and simpler – a dance, and not a series of bumps and jolts. The extent to which it does this is the test of any code of manners.
Nor can manners be invented in one generation, which is why such books exist. Think of them as cheat sheets for social and cultural advancement. Given that, it’s remarkable how little we use them.
How do manners like this come to be lost in the course of time? Negligence, probably. Forces outside of our control coarsen life (politics comes to mind) and reduce the connection we feel with others. We are more inclined to take without giving, extract value rather than provide value, partake in others’ benevolence while not offering our own. Forgetting manners and disregarding etiquette makes the world a less beautiful place than it otherwise would be. Nor is it in our personal interest.
Holiday season is now upon us. Why not take the occasion to try this out? Bring a gift to a party. Do it with a good heart and loving intentions. Watch what happens. See how the smallest gestures can improve our relationships.
The timing could not be better. We’ve lived through a grim and ghastly political season that has divided friendships, families, and whole communities. We’ve gotten used to the idea that life is a zero-sum game of winners and losers. Etiquette represents an opposite style of thinking and behavior. It’s a great way to fight back against the way politics coarsens life and ruins relationships.
There is no such thing as a society without rules. The choice we have is whether these rules come from leaders with guns, or codes of conduct emanating from our voluntary choice. It’s so easy to side with one method of social organization or another. Minding our manners might seem like a small thing, but it is a revolutionary statement that you have confidence in the capacity of society to obey its own rules.