The Art and Practice of Hospitality

by Kenneth E. Buckle, Psy.D.
November 15, 1995

What thoughts and feelings come to mind when you hear the word “hospitality?” I recently posed this question to a group of undergraduate psychology students. The answers I received began a discussion that became quite interesting, and eventually spilled over into the area of spirituality. So what do YOU think about hospitality? Grab a pencil now and jot down your ideas about hospitality before you read further. For some, the idea of hospitality may seem like an old-fashioned notion that has died off long ago. Seniors may recall that hospitality was a valued and important function or task, and that individuals were often designated or volunteered to be on a hospitality committee for a certain event. In this regard, the object of hospitality was to “welcome” a stranger or guest to a special event.

However, hospitality can have other meanings. The students listed the concepts of service, sacrifice, helping someone feel comfortable, giving of oneself, and even sexual invitation! They also suggested that people can be welcomed into a home, a social group, or any type of new situation. Myths and stories from long ago show the extent to which hospitality was offered. In the bible, there are some good examples for study on this topic. Abraham welcomed three travelers who were complete strangers (Genesis 18). In another place, a distinction is made between physical and emotional hospitality (Luke 10:38- 42) being provided to another person who was on a journey. Emotional hospitality was described to be superior. How are these concepts different, and what does this mean for us?

We could think of emotional hospitality as welcoming a person into our life, while physical hospitality might be literally making space or meeting a person’s physical needs. For instance, the development of any new relationship might involve emotional hospitality. In order for a relationship to progress, the two persons involved usually need to feel comfortable with each other. On the other hand, a hotel might pay careful attention to physical hospitality by making sure that our hotel room is clean and comfortable when we arrive.

How is hospitality accomplished? Preparation and anticipation are key elements. After you make a hotel reservation, the staff there know when you will arrive and they try to make sure that your room is ready. They also want all of their employees to be cheerful, friendly, and helpful when you approach them.
Similarly, emotional hospitality requires preparation and anticipation. People that are confident and secure are able to welcome others into relationships with ease. When this occurs, somehow feelings of fear and anxiety are minimized. A person once described to me a feeling of hospitality with an intimate friend who seemed to know what she needed or wanted even before she had expressed it to her host. Others maintain a prayerful vigilance, looking for opportunities to be a welcoming and inviting host. They feel honor, joy, and love in the act of serving someone else. This process is the beginning of intimacy, and can result in the deepening of human relationships.

In order to be “successful” at hospitality, one must be able to set selfish desires aside on order to meet the needs of the other person. The narcissist cannot do this, because there is little realization or awareness of the other person’s needs, and the expectation and drive of the narcissist is to get his or her own needs met. Anger and low self-esteem can also be barriers to hospitality. To some, hospitality is natural while others may have do work consciously to become better at it. This is the type of issue which requires us to be at home or comfortable with ourselves before we can invite others into our home. Recall that in the Twelve Step program we progress through all of the steps before we reach out to provide assistance to others. Extra baggage must be cleared out of the way before hospitality can be delivered.

As we enter the holiday season, there will likely be many opportunities to practice and/or observe hospitality. We may have friends or relatives visiting, or may have a trip planned to visit someone else. See if you can discover what others do in order to be a good host for you. In the spirit of gift-giving and generosity we might extend invitations to others to enter or reenter our lives. Hospitality can be an enriching, healing, and growth producing experience for all involved. Give it a try!

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