Dear Helena,

I know a couple that loves to host dinner parties. They’ve had me over to eat twice. I’ve started feeling guilty because I don’t reciprocate. The problem is, I can’t cook, and I live in a studio apartment that’s a little cramped for entertaining. Plus, if I invited them over, they’d have to get a sitter for their kids. If someone cooks you dinner, do you owe them a dinner in return?—Worried Bachelor

Dear Worried Bachelor,

How much do you like these people? Your feelings toward them should dictate your course of action. There are three possibilities:

1. Indifference. Maybe this couple entertains, but they’re not that entertaining. If you’ve decided that they don’t inspire you, then you don’t owe them anything but a thank-you email. Don’t send a handwritten note—if you go to that much trouble, they might think you really like them. That may sound harsh, but if you don’t want to develop a friendship, it’s kindest to cut it off sooner rather than later. Save your hospitality for your real friends.

2. Affection. If you want to maintain the friendship, you should give something to your hosts. This is because going to dinner parties is like receiving gifts. You don’t have to reciprocate every one, observing a rigid quid pro quo. But if you never recognize the other person’s generosity with any gesture, eventually the friendship will suffer. You could take them out for Chinese food, or just a couple of beers. I have a friend who often comes to dinner and rarely entertains. But he has a knack for finding cool stuff in secondhand clothing stores, and he often shows up with a great T-shirt for my husband.

3. Enthusiasm. If you really want to cultivate a friendship, you should invite this couple over. An invitation to your home is an invitation to see the real you, from the books on your shelf to the food in your refrigerator to your yoga nook or pet rat.

If your friends are great cooks and you’re not, or they have matching wineglasses while you’re serving wine dripping out of chipped mugs, you may feel intimidated about entertaining them. But if they’re really your friends, you shouldn’t have to pretend to be something you’re not. If you turn the lights down, they probably won’t notice that your bathroom ceiling is moldy. As for food, takeout is fine. As long as there’s plenty to drink, your friends will probably have a great time. And they’ll be sure to invite you back.

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