The art (and science) of inviting people over again

We're all a little shaky right now—here are some sturdy guardrails

Published June 22, 2021 2:54PM (EDT)

Food stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop stylist: Megan Hedgpeth. (Julia Gartland / Food52)
Food stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop stylist: Megan Hedgpeth. (Julia Gartland / Food52)

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Welcome to How to Be Social Again: The No-Stress Guide to Returning to Society. In this mini-series, you'll get a brush-up on everything from invitation etiquette to navigating bars again — plus, a drinks menu-planner for any party size and an ode the most underrated of gatherings, the coffee date.

* * *

What does Priya Parker's social calendar look like right now, I wonder? Reentry has gotten off to a bumpy start: Almost half of vaccinated Americans still feel "uneasy about adjusting to in-person interaction," according to a March 2021 American Psychological Association report. So how has it been for Parker, a group conflict mediator by training and the author of "The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters" (and, I'm hoping, my guiding light)?

"We're moving slowly, slowly, slowly," she told me on the phone. (This was after three emails, four texts to two separate parties, and one rescheduling. The high demand for Parker right now is evidence that reentry is most definitely here.) "I want to reconnect with my people and, for me, that means slowly and individually, almost like building blocks." She's sticking to hosting just one or two friends at a time until she gets the sense that those in her social circles are ready for larger groups — and gaining that sense takes time and care. Parker believes that the role of host is to protect, connect, and temporarily equalize guests — and 90% of that work happens before the gathering even begins. Here's how to do it.

Check-in individually first; then send the invite. 

"Asking people to reveal their vaccination or comfort levels in front of each other unfairly puts the weight on the person who is not vaccinated or who is the least comfortable," says Parker. Text or call each guest individually, instead, to find out what they need in order to feel safe — and to give them the opportunity to opt-out privately. "When you do that work, the invitation is a formality," says Parker. "It's the end of a conversation, not the beginning of one."

Lay the ground rules ahead of time — and be specific. 

"It's on the host to make sure that people know what they're signing up for, so establish the norms ahead of time," says Parker. The invite should list the time, place, size of the group, vaccination level of the group, and anything else that, based on your private conversations with guests, will help them make their final calls. For example: picnic at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday; not everyone is vaccinated, so we're going to stay outside. "Even that is information," says Parker. "Give them enough so they can make the right decisions for themselves."

Center the needs of the person who needs the most. 

If one person isn't comfortable with hugging, for example, then establish a no-hugging rule on the invitation. Parker says that's the generous thing to do: "Center the person most on the fringe, because it's good for everybody."

Don't feel you have to be so formal about it all! 

"When checking in with people, you can be casual and funny: 'Is that your jam yet?'" says Parker. And when you send the invite, feel free to be yourself. "It can just be two lines, like, 'For many of you, this is your first gathering. All awkwardness is welcome.' Just be real!"

All of this falls under what Parker calls generous authority. "If you are going to host, host," she writes in her book. "If you are going to create a kingdom for an hour or a day, rule it — and rule it with generosity." This isn't about control; it's about giving your guests guardrails. In These COVID Times, those rails need to be a little sturdier so that, instead of calculating their comfort levels or navigating anxieties in the moment, your guests can simply be together. "At some level," Parker told me, "true etiquette is supposed to be an explicit common set of norms so that people can meaningfully connect with each other."

So, go forth and host — carefully, generously, and with authority.

By Julia Bainbridge

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