The Reciprocity Rap

Fairfax residents Christine and George Lively, pictured here with their children, Carl, 4, Georgia Mae, 8, and Lance, 21 months, say they have people over more often for dinner than they are invited to others' homes.
Fairfax residents Christine and George Lively, pictured here with their children, Carl, 4, Georgia Mae, 8, and Lance, 21 months, say they have people over more often for dinner than they are invited to others' homes. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Michaele Weissman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Ask someone who enjoys cooking and entertaining how often their guests reciprocate, and the response is usually a startled laugh that suggests you're on to something.

Ask those who accept invitations but don't invite back -- and you get the same reaction.

It's an unacknowledged truth of modern life: There are hosts and there are guests -- many of whom get invited back time after time -- but the roles aren't as interchangeable as they used to be. "Tit-for-tat socializing," in the words of San Francisco etiquette writer Charles Purdy, aka Mr. Social Grace, "is sort of old-fashioned."

His assessment reflects an attitude shift away from the old standard that he who sups should offer supper in return. But it can be confusing to those who think the reciprocal sharing of food with friends and family is an important social ritual.

Fairfax resident Christine Lively, a working mother of three, says she and her husband George can't help wondering if they are being singled out for social rejection. The couple enjoy cooking and they often invite their friends for dinner but are rarely invited back.

"Are people going to other people's homes and we're not being invited?" she asks. "Do they think we wouldn't hire a babysitter? Or has that kind of social pressure -- rules requiring guests to reciprocate -- just gone by the wayside?"

Nancy Pollard, accomplished cook and owner of La Cuisine, a cookware store in Alexandria, has noticed the change.

"Didn't their parents tell them that when you accept an invitation, you are supposed to reciprocate?" she asks. As is the case with many fine cooks, friends and acquaintances often tell Pollard they would invite her . . . but they feel intimidated by her skills. "Competition and jealousy rear their ugly heads," she says, recalling what happened some years ago when she invited a co-worker and his wife to dinner.

The perfectly grilled steaks, the Burgundy, the chocolate velvet dessert -- all were a success. As her guests departed, they burbled promises to repeat the favor. "Every time I saw my co-worker, he would recall the evening," Pollard remembers. But there was no return invitation, and the situation turned awkward.

"What's sad is, I really don't care how fancy the food is," Pollard says, noting that one of her friends who does not cook recently invited a group over for BLTs, salad and fresh berries. "That was a wonderful evening," she says.

In general, Pollard thinks invitations should be reciprocated within a year, though she acknowledges that logistics can get in the way.

In many Washington circles, Pollard's idea is considered quaint.


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