Whenever we are invited to the McPerfects’ for dinner, I get a lump in the pit of my stomach. The food is always delicious, the table settings worthy of Martha Stewart, but the tension that surrounds these productions gives me indigestion. I always offer to help, but I am frequently turned down. I would rather eat simple food with a calm host and hostess than be at the table when Mr. McPerfect is squabbling with Mrs. McPerfect about the dishes that the salads are served in. Do you have any tips to being a better guest? —Imperfect Tense
Dear Imperfect Tense,
When your hosts are going crazy trying to make everything perfect, it’s all too easy to let their stress infect you. As Bo Forbes, a yoga teacher and clinical psychologist, says, control freaks usually harbor “underlying anxiety,” and this can easily be transmitted to those around them. But try to stay calm. This will help you get through the evening, and as a side benefit, Forbes points out, “Your calmness can be ‘contagious’ to your hosts as well.”
When your hosts become extremely agitated because they can’t find the marrow spoons for the osso buco, take a deep breath. Inhale for one count, exhale for two. “Two-to-one breathing calms and slows the heart, stilling the fight-or-flight response,” Forbes says. As you relax, she advises: “Cultivate as much compassion for your hosts as possible.” It helps to reflect on what is driving their behavior.
As your heart fills with compassion, you may feel an urge to banish your hosts’ insecurities, telling them it’s their company that matters to you, not their quail egg amuse-bouches. But don’t expect such assurances to have much effect. “The attempt to be perfect is a way of compensating for low self-esteem,” Forbes says.
“Usually they’re suffering from deep-rooted insecurities,” says Mark Epstein, a Buddhist psychotherapist and author of the forthcoming Psychotherapy Without the Self: A Buddhist Perspective. In other words, you’re probably not going to change them.
Similarly, if your hosts start bickering over the tableware, avoid the temptation to defuse the situation with a humorous remark. Your hosts are enacting engrained relationship patterns, and you can’t alter those with a one-liner. Instead, stare into the middle distance and focus on your breath.
You should offer to help in the kitchen. But Mr. and Mrs. McPerfect are likely to decline your offer. Don’t insist. If they are busy drizzling hot caramel over the croquembouche, they don’t want you interrupting to ask whether they have a clean chopping board.
So how can you help? Diane Winslow, co-owner of a plant and herb nursery in Austin, Texas, and a frequent dinner-party host, says: “To be a good guest is to help get things moving, but not necessarily by prepping in the kitchen. I like people … to make newcomers feel at home, and get the conversation going.” If the guests are having fun, the hosts may calm down a little too. They may even stop worrying for a moment about the calligraphy on their place cards or the seasoning in their homemade gnocchi. Just don’t count on it.