How to Be a Good Guest – Free Ebook

It’s normal to want to be a good guest;
an intense wish to please tends to guide us

when we accept a dinner invitation or spend
a weekend with friends. And we generally fulfil

this ambition by following a leading theory
of what satisfies other humans: we mimic our

hosts. We follow their lead in the conversation,
we discuss what they want to discuss, we eat

when they want to eat. We are malleable, we
adjust; we laugh at pretty much anything they

find funny. It sounds extremely generous and
deeply well-intentioned but there’s a strange

aspect to this theory: the mimetic person
is not, in practice, especially pleasing.

They may not be offensive, but nor are they
particularly memorable, interesting or even

likeable. By
contrast there is another social type who

is a great deal more winning: the person who
expresses their own distinctive needs with

clarity while nevertheless remaining at all
times gracious and socially vigilant. This

more richly characterful person will, over
dinner, remark with a smile that they happen

to find the politician everyone is meant to
hate oddly attractive, at least in fantasy.

They tell us about an embarrassing thing that
happened to them recently at work – or about

a regret that haunts them in their emotional
lives. When they are our house guest, they

inform us in a rather precise, though always
highly polite, way when they like to go to

sleep, how much time they need on their own
and what their bathroom requirements are.

They apologise for being a bit mad in a way
that suggests profound sanity. They add that

they’d deeply appreciate a boiled egg with
biscuits for lunch. They are, in the best

way, a bit peculiar. It isn’t that the mimetic
person harms us; they simply don’t reassure

or endear us. A key part of what we seek in
social contact is a feeling that our eccentricities

and less easily mentioned dimensions find
an echo in another person. And yet all we

see when we come to closer to the conformist
guest is our own reflection. What truly charms

is the person who manages to possess both
a character and politeness. The archetype

for this is the endearing four-and-a-half
year old child. They’ll tell a near stranger

their ideas about where squirrels go at night,
what they like to put in their sandwiches

and their nickname for their elderly grandfather.
We colloquially call this ‘cute’ but it’s

perhaps something more serious than this implies:
more pointedly, it’s a relief from the customary

pressure to standardise human nature and to
say nothing that will sound too odd or flavoured.

The small child is reminding us that the variegated
surface of every personality – theirs but

by implication ours as well – could be put
on display and, rather than hurt or offend,

simply charm and enliven. The good guest combines
the candour of the child with the social empathy

of the self-aware adult. They know how to
be that rare and much prized social phenomenon:

a loveable eccentric. There is a sad background
to the people pleasing adult who doesn’t

in the end even please so much. They are generally
the outcome of a style of parenting that didn’t

allow character or originality to show through.
They had to hide who they really were for

fear of upsetting an angry or vulnerable set
of caregivers. We cannot erase the past, but

we can cease waging an active war on our characters
in public. Our true selves may once have been

unwanted, but it’s only on the basis of
being able to show them now that proper friendships

can begin. Being merely polite is, in the
end, an overly low ambition. We have exaggerated

how much people like to be imitated and invariably
agreed with. It is easy to tolerate such types,

but very hard to love them. To truly please
people requires that we dare to show a little

more of the touching weirdness that lurks
within us all.

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