How to Be a Good Host and Make Guests Comfortable

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Art of Gathering" by Priya Parker. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you know how to direct a gathering? How can you be a good host to your guests?

At an event you’re hosting, your guests should be your number one priority. The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker says many people think that hosts should relax when it comes to their duties, but it’s actually quite the opposite.

Keep reading for the truth behind learning how to be a good host.

The Host Shouldn’t Relax

A harmful misconception, according to Parker, is the idea that the host should relax, or “chill.” Hosts who think they should relax leave guests to their own devices—such as by letting guests roam around the venue unrestricted. These hosts see their refusal to direct the gathering as an act of kindness that will result in a laid-back, undirected affair. But in reality, if a host doesn’t direct his own affair, someone else will—usually in a manner that ruins the gathering for everybody else.

To know how to be a good host, Parker recommends that you shift your mindset and deliberately direct the gathering. In other words, you must use your power as a host to make your guests do things they might not choose themselves. If this seems too stuffy, remind yourself that deliberate direction is kinder than relaxing—as long as it’s motivated by a desire to provide your guests with a maximally fulfilling experience. If you’re motivated by anything else (like a desire to seem more important), you’ll detract from, rather than enhance, your guests’ experience.

Why Women Don’t Want to Deliberately Direct  

Female hosts may be particularly reluctant to deliberately direct their gathering due to cultural expectations that women need to be low-maintenance to be attractive. This is personified by the “cool girl” trope often perpetuated in movies. The “cool girl” is always effortlessly beautiful and carefree, and she makes few demands on those around her. And she’s often contrasted with a more high-maintenance woman who does make demands on the people around her and is presented as inherently less desirable. 

But just as deliberately directing your gathering can be kinder to your guests, doing so can be kinder to yourself. If you clearly tell your guests what you want them to do, they’ll likely do it—and you’ll grow happier because the gathering is going well in the way that you prefer.

Parker explains that deliberately directing your gathering involves doing three things. First, defend your guests against actions that harm the good of the gathering—even if doing so is unpleasant. For example, one movie theater expels guests who use their cell phones during the show. This policy upsets the expelled guests but enhances the other guests’ moviegoing experience. 

(Shortform note: As a guest, you can prevent yourself from harming the good of the gathering by not attending if you don’t agree with the event’s purpose. For example, if you love texting during movies, you could avoid the movie theater Parker mentions. In a separate blog post, Parker recommends that if you’re invited to a gathering, ask yourself whether and why you want to attend. If you’re unable to come up with a compelling reason, don’t feel obligated to go.) 

Second, level the playing field: Identify and temporarily destroy any relevant inequalities. This allows guests to relate to each other as equals, rather than deferring to each other out of societal norms. For example, if you’re hosting a party among people of vastly different career levels, select a restaurant that everybody can afford. 

(Shortform note: In some cases, leveling the playing field may mean letting go as a host. For example, The Dinner Party gathers people in their 20s-40s at dinner parties specifically to discuss grief. Previously, the organizers deliberately created tables of equals by matching each participant to a table that met their specific needs—such as one composed of guests who’d experienced suicide loss. But in 2021, the organizers let go and started letting participants choose their own tables. In this way, the participants were able to find tables in which they felt most comfortable (and equal)—which wasn’t necessarily what the organizers thought would make them feel most equal. In this way, letting go improved the guests’ experiences.)

Third, facilitate links between your guests and do things to help them get to know each other despite any discomfort they (or you) might feel. For example, Parker once asked people to switch tables regularly during a conference; despite the guests’ original reluctance, they were ultimately grateful for the number of connections they made. 

(Shortform note: How can you connect better with a fellow guest once your host introduces you? Try repeating their name. In The Fine Art of Small Talk, Debra Fine argues that everyone has the right to be called by their name. Moreover, repeating someone’s name increases the chances that you’ll remember it—which is particularly important if you switch tables regularly and meet many people. Additionally, Fine recommends asking open-ended questions that demand more than a one-word answer. You’ll encourage the other person to talk more about themselves—and the more they give you, the more you’ll have to talk about.)

How to Be a Good Host and Make Guests Comfortable

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Art of Gathering summary:

  • How to make pre-planned gatherings more meaningful and engaging
  • What to do before, during, and after any type of gathering
  • Why the host should never relax during their event

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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