R.S.V.P. Hesitant hosts can overcome their fear of entertaining

November 23, 1997|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

Giving a party is about as stressful as preparing a tax return and ranks slightly above visiting the dentist, according to a Gallup poll taken last year. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?

No wonder we dread the approaching holidays. America's fear of entertaining is at its worst at a time when, at the very least, we're expected to have the family over for a lavish Thanksgiving feast. Not to mention possible cocktail parties, Christmas dinners, Hanukkah celebrations and New Year's Eve festivities.

In the past few decades, giving a party has become a chore, not a delight. As our lives have become more and more frenetic, we've stopped cooking and fewer of us have help around the house.

It's a sad state of affairs, says etiquette expert and author Letitia Baldrige. She mourns the fact that we have become a nation of hesitant hosts -- although, she points out, "We don't even have to go to the corner store for ice any more."

How did we get in this fix? Just what's so scary about inviting people we like into our houses? Here are some of the reasons, excuses and attitudes that need adjusting:

Blame our busy schedules

We don't have time to give a dinner party the rest of the year, what with work, car-pooling, aerobics classes, day-to-day housekeeping. We couldn't possibly entertain during the holidays with all the extra chores and events that must get done.

If you don't have time, entertaining gurus say, think small and keep things simple. You can always invite guests for coffee and dessert, for instance. Buy the dessert.

"Have a few people over for drinks," says Suzanne Williamson, author of "Entertaining for Dummies" (IDG Books Worldwide). "Serve wine. Go to a cheese store and buy three different kinds of cheese and crackers."

If you're inviting guests for dinner, remember that you aren't competing with their favorite restaurant. They're simply glad not to have to cook.

* Depending on your finances, pick up dishes from your favorite restaurant.

* Plan an easy, one-pot meal such as Creole, curry or stew.

* Use prepared foods like a gourmet pasta salad combined with your own cooking.

* Buy bread and dessert at a good bakery.

Of course, if it's your turn to prepare Thanksgiving dinner, you can't get away with heating up a casserole. But when your guests ask if they can bring anything, you can say "yes" -- people are always glad to fix their favorite side dishes. You may only have to roast the turkey. You can even buy a cooked turkey and not tell anyone.

But if the thought of doing that makes you anxious rather than relieved, perhaps it's because of a certain celebrity overachiever:

Blame Martha

No matter how great a party you throw, everybody knows that Martha Stewart could have done it better. The Martha Complex started affecting us the moment her opus "Entertaining" appeared in bookstores in 1982.

Martha is the standard by which we all fear we'll be judged. There's nothing more enraging than someone who makes and freezes 2,500 hors d'oeuvres for an annual holiday party when your idea of planning ahead is remembering to buy the Pepperidge Farm Goldfish.

Organizing consultant Michelle Passoff, whose book "Lighten up! Free Yourself From Clutter" will be published next year by HarperCollins, asked people what they were making room in their lives for when they hired her. A majority of them said, "So I can entertain more."

"People are afraid their guests will see they aren't worthy of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval," Passoff says.

In actuality, people's expectations have probably never been so low. They are so grateful to be invited into someone's home and fed -- because it's a rare occurrence these days -- they really don't care if there's dust in the corners and you didn't make the bread.

Blame Mom and Dad

Experts in the field of social phobias point to our deprived childhoods. If our parents didn't entertain, then we never learned how to.

"Children don't even know how to pass hors d'oeuvres," says Baldrige. "These are social skills that haven't been passed on."

Of course entertaining is scary if we as children didn't get comfortable making small talk with adults or didn't see that a fallen souffle isn't the end of the world. We should be having our own teen-agers set the table for our dinner parties so they learn to do it correctly.

"Your gift to your children," says Williamson, "is not to banish them. Have them come in for dessert; they'll infuse new life into a discussion."

(This depends on the children, of course. You may just want them to help put away coats, make polite conversation for a few minutes and then disappear.)

Even if your parents did entertain, you probably won't be entertaining the same way. Most of us don't have the time to cook or clean so elaborately. And yet many of us turn down our guests when they want to contribute.

"Take all offers of help," says Paula Jhung, author of "Guests Without Grief" (Simon & Schuster). "We often say what we heard our moms say." But our moms hadn't been working away from the house all week.

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