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The Definition of Hospitable Reciprocity

After reading a recent post where the OP was upset by the lack of reciprocal invitations from her guests, I have to ask: am I bound for eHell?

A little background:

4 years ago my mother’s job was outsourced to India. Since the layoff my mom has been unable to find a new source of employment. I gave up my apartment and moved home to cover the bills so she wouldn’t lose her house.

I never entertain because my mom is a borderline hoarder. It is a four bedroom house and every room is filled with furniture, jewelry supplies, paperwork, etc…

It isn’t like those tv shows. There’s no spoiling food or feral cats.

But it isn’t an inviting environment. Every surface is covered with piles of old mail, bills, etc… There are only a few places to sit. And when I try to get the mess into some kind of order my mom becomes very upset and yells “Don’t move stuff. I’ll never find anything if you start moving stuff around!”

My friends often invite me over to their houses and apartments for parties, dinners, game nights, etc…

Since I don’t have people over to my place, I will invite friends one at a time, or if they in a relationship one couple at a time, out to dinner or a movie as my treat.

Is this not sufficient?

Am I being a moocher by going to their parties when I know I will not be throwing a party of my own any time in the foreseeable future? 1106-12

I think we need to define what “hospitable reciprocity” means.   It is not necessarily an apples to apples comparison such as friends alternating hosting parties.   There are circumstances where people cannot act as a host in their own domiciles and so they invite friends to join them at a restaurant or some other event like a concert at their expense.    Sometimes reciprocity can be expressed by other acts of kindness such as cards, surprise treats, a helping hand when you need it, a dropped off meal when someone is sick, etc.   There is some demonstration of a willingness to invest in the relationship.

Moochers, on the other hand, never seem to invest any part of themselves for the purpose of developing the relationship.   It’s take, take, take all the way.   The relationship is excruciatingly one sided.  I describe it as I am the horse pulling the wagon or sleigh while the passengers are having a great time.   There are passengers who have no concept of helping to pull the hospitality load every once in a while.  Nope, as long as they are having fun, you are of some value to them.   But your true value to them is solely predicated upon how much fun you provide for them.   Stop the party fun and the dinners and there is no incentive to have a relationship with you.

So, no, be assured you are not a moocher.

{ 31 comments… add one }
  • Shannon November 29, 2012, 8:23 am

    I think the OP sounds like a lovely person – moving home to help out Mom, and treating her friends very well.

    I live in the city, and many of my friends live in shoebox-sized apartments and simply do not have enough space to host gatherings. Or, since DC is very expensive, there’s just not enough money at the end of the month to host anything. But if we host, they go out of their way to be appreciative – they offer to come early to help set up, bring a dish or a terrific bottle of wine, or load the dishwasher at the end of the party.

    So if you can’t be a good host, be an amazing guest. It’s all reciprocity.

  • acr November 29, 2012, 9:39 am

    I totally agree with the Admin. OP, you’re fine. You don’t have to host your friends in the exact way they hosted you – just host them in some fashion.

    If you would like to host a party, check into renting a pavilion or picnic area at a local park. At my local state park, you can rent a camping area for the day for around $30, and you get a picnic table and a grill. This spring or summer, you could buy some hotdogs, buns, potato salad, etc, and host a nice cookout, if hosting is something you enjoy.

  • --Lia November 29, 2012, 10:17 am

    No matter how I try to twist this into being about reciprocating hospitality, I can’t get past the fact that you moved out of a situation where you were independent in your own apartment, able to entertain as you liked, and into a place where you’re paying the bills, but your mother is calling the shots. She gets to decide where the clutter is in every room of the house which means that, by extension, she gets to determine whether you have guests over. Meanwhile, you’re responsible for the expenses in a house you don’t feel comfortable living in. Your mother has got you guilt-tripped into an untenable situation. This isn’t two adults learning to live together with the usual roommate problems that come up like how the dishwasher is loaded or whether beds can be left unmade. She’s holding you hostage.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge believer in families helping each other out when the need arises. For the most part, I’d say you were doing the right thing. But now the etiquette problem is how to get along with your roommate/mother. If you really want what’s best for your mother, you’ve got to insist, as gently or as firmly as it takes, that she get help for her hoarding problem. It doesn’t have to get as bad as filled with collected cats to get her some mental health help. At the very least, you’ve got to restore enough order so that the rooms can be used for their original purposes. You have to be able to cook in the kitchen, sit on the chairs, eat at a table. When your mother becomes upset with you for moving things around, again, as gently or as firmly as it takes, you have to insist that excess furniture can be given away, jewelry supplies can be relegated to one closet, and old bills belong filed neatly in a single file cabinet. (If it fills more than one file cabinet, you have too much and need to shred whatever is not vital or current.)

  • A November 29, 2012, 10:19 am

    I agree-you’re definitley not a moocher! That sounds like a great compromise given the circumstances. Maybe some of your friends even assume the reason if they’ve stopped by your mom’s place.

  • Chocobo November 29, 2012, 10:28 am

    If reciprocity included an “eye-for-an-eye” clause, we’d never be friends with anyone who was different from ourselves: a wealthy couple who like to have outings on their yacht could never know anyone who doesn’t have a yacht. A single woman could only have other single people over for dinner. Christian people could only invite other Christians to Christmas parties. And so on and so forth. What a world that would be!

  • Lacey November 29, 2012, 10:31 am

    I think if you take the spending lots of money/throwing parties aspect out of it, it’s just basically: do both people take turns inviting each other to do things, making contact, etc? Or does one person always do all the inviting, and the other will go along if it’s convenient or really enticing, but never take the initiative to make plans with their friend? I definitely don’t expect all my friends to host parties, but you can tell when a relationship is one-sided. I think the fact that you’re worrying about this means that your friendships are not one-sided.

  • Ellen November 29, 2012, 11:12 am

    Of course you are not a moocher. There would never be any chance of friendship among people of different lifestyles or economic status if everything had to be completely equal. An invitation is an invitation. In fact, there are some folks (0r used to be) who use one large party to reciprocate a year’s worth of dinner invitations from all their friends at once. To my mind, that is a bit lopsided but it is not incorrect.

  • AS November 29, 2012, 11:18 am

    We have the same trouble – we have friends who often invite around 80 people to their homes for parties (the hosts are 4 room mates, and they share a pretty big apartment with a backyard, albeit smallish though usable. And this happens several times a year, through facebook invite. They are wonderful people and it is a nice way to get to know other people in the community. But it would be impossible for DH and me to receiprocate all the invites, because we prefer to host smaller with more intimate gatherings, and we usually don’t make them pot luck making it even harder for us to keep cooking and cleaning up several times a year. Are we committing a faux pas by not reciprocating the invitations everytime?

  • TylerBelle November 29, 2012, 11:43 am

    Hospitality doesn’t begin and end at someone’s home. Of course, gatherings there are lovely, but there are other outlets in which to be hospitable. Sometimes the littlest gestures can mean the most. My house isn’t really great for entertaining, so I’d also prefer hosting at a restaurant, or at some other venue.

  • The Elf November 29, 2012, 12:17 pm

    Some of my friends are not in a position to host parties or buy dinner. That’s okay. They reciprocate by doing all sorts of other things. I can depend on one to call me if I need a ride home. Another is a great cook and is always bringing me treats when we get together. Another pet sits for me. I don’t consider any of them moochers. It’s a psychological give-and-take, not necessarily a physical or monetary one.

  • Library Diva November 29, 2012, 2:04 pm

    I agree with Lia, and join her in suggesting the OP work on either getting her mom some help, or extracting herself from this situation. As a former (not proud!) devotee of “that show,” I saw that each person profiled was different. One woman felt that expiration dates on food were marketing gimmicks and also had a tendency to bring things like pumpkins and apples into the house and forget about them. One guy was almost more like an obsessive collector than what you might think of as a hoarder — but he couldn’t sleep in his bed because of all the dolls and couldn’t use the kitchen because of all the gadgets and trinkets. Another guy had — quite literally — nothing in house but thousands of rats, and actually lived in a shed which he kept pretty neat. Yet another woman hoarded two main things: books/teaching materials, and plastic bins. The two went hand-in-hand. She stored all of her finds in the boxes, but they had completely taken over her home and the crew removed something like 2000 of them.

    My basic takeaway from the show is that if you can’t use the house the way it was designed to be used — if you can’t cook, can’t sleep in beds, can’t sit on chairs and couches — there’s a problem. Try to get your mom some help, and consider getting out if you can’t get her to make changes. You shouldn’t have to live like that.

  • RedDevil November 29, 2012, 3:13 pm

    Oh deary me I could tell you some hoarding stories, OP. My Gran is a hoarder, just like your mum. “Clean” hoarding I’d call it – there’s no cats or rotting food, but by golly there’s everything else.
    Junk mail, bills, empty (washed) margarine containers, tinned food from (I swear) the 90’s…
    She actually has entire houses (yes, plural) filled with stuff. Furniture and the likes.
    She built a brand new house a few years ago and swore that she wouldn’t fill it with stuff… sure enough, it’s filling up all the same.

    It’ll be one epic Garage Sale when she passes on…

  • WildIrishRose November 29, 2012, 4:08 pm

    @Lia: I had much the same thoughts, but didn’t really know how to express them. Thank you.

  • Ellen November 29, 2012, 4:09 pm

    @Lia, while you are trying to do a kind thing by looking beyond the surface issue, I think you may underestimate the difficulty of dealing productively with someone who is seriously depressed. I don’t think a complete role reversal of emphasizing to the Mom that she is now a dependent child and must live by OP’s rule, is going to help the situation. OP is already doing a lot, telling him/her “you have to do this, and you have to do that” is not going to make him/her feel supported. OP is obviously a very thoughtful and resourceful person – the two of them will work out a long-term solution.

  • Calli Arcale November 29, 2012, 4:14 pm

    Like Lia, I can’t help but think about the unfortunate situation the OP finds himself/herself in. And never mind the TV stereotype; there doesn’t have to be rotting food or a feral cat colony to qualify as a hoarder. The general rule of thumb for a psychiatric disease can be applied here: if it interferes negatively with the person’s quality of life, then it is a problem. People don’t just hoard trash. They hoard all sorts of things. I have someone in my family that I’d class as a hoarder, who definitely has a problem, but reaching her about it seems impossible. Every surface in the house is covered with piles of stuff. The floor is covered. You can barely walk. She has lugged this stuff from house to house, as financial situations drive her from one place to another, and suggesting that she thin it out is met with hostility; she sees it as a direct threat to lose her stuff. That’s when you know it’s a problem. OP, your mother appears threatened by you even *moving* the stuff; I hope you are able to reach her and encourage her to get help. It could be partially psychological compensation for losing her job, but it’s not helping her. Solving this problem might even make it easier for her to get new employment, since emotional instability can make a person seem “off” to a recruiter.

  • LS November 29, 2012, 4:28 pm

    I can’t host myself, but when I’m invited to things I always take a bottle of wine or flowers for the host. Easy, and appreciated.

  • Drawberry November 29, 2012, 5:42 pm

    OP you sound like a very wonderful child to your mother and a considerate friend.

    Being a ‘reciprocal friend’ doesn’t mean following up with the exact same thing as your friend did. It simply means investing the same amount of yourself into that individual as they put in to you. Sometimes that means equal time over at one another’s homes for ‘entertaining’ sort of events, sometimes that means helping to pay for their dinner or movie ticket, and other times it might mean being there for someone when they’re ill and need company.

    It doesn’t HAVE to mean ‘you pay for my dinner and the I’ll pay for yours’ or ‘party at my house then party at yours’.

  • Silverlily November 29, 2012, 7:26 pm

    –Lia is right — the OP’s mother is a huge problem, so much so that anything etiquette-related takes a back seat to getting both mother and child professional help.

    Could it be that the OP submitted this entry as a cry for help? (Do forgive the cliché.)

  • Aje November 29, 2012, 7:42 pm

    Oh… so there are people out there who know what it´s like to have borderline hoarders as family… and the stresses of trying to entertain and-or clean without upsetting them…

    You´re doing just fine. 🙂

  • Cat November 29, 2012, 8:35 pm

    I don’t think you are a moocher at all. You are doing what you can with the situation in which you find yourself.
    Like many of the other posters, I have qualms about your trying to help your mother by giving up your life. I look down the road and see you falling in love, wanting to marry, and Mom saying, “But I need you here! How can you abandon me?” I can’t see a husband wanting to live in your mother’s home or your being satisfied with a man who would.
    You mother does seem to have some deep-seating issues that she needs professional help to overcome. You cannot do it and, if you try, it’s going to create family tension that you don’t need.
    My mother was a lot like yours, but her ploy was to tell me as a child that only girls who hated their mothers left home and went to college. Good girls who loved their mothers lived at home until they married and then their mothers lived with them. I can imagine what my life would have been like if she had achieved that goal.
    Please set a time by which mother needs to find another job and you will be moving out.

  • Margaret November 29, 2012, 8:53 pm

    Inviting people out for coffee etc is exactly what hoarders/squalorers are encouraged to do as a way to maintain or develop friendships. Many people who hoarding or squalor issues experience incredible shame, and that shame can make it extremely difficult to reach out to people.

    If anyone is truly interested in learning about hoarding, they would do well to start with Dr. Randy Frost’s books. It is no more useful to tell a hoarder to “just not hoard” or “just throw it all out” than it is to tell an alcoholic to “just not drink”.

  • Margaret November 29, 2012, 8:53 pm

    “with hoarding or squalor issues”, not “who”

  • PM November 29, 2012, 11:23 pm

    I just want to give the OP a hug. You sound like a lovely person trying to do the right thing, but your mother is making the situation more difficult than it has to be.

  • SJ November 30, 2012, 1:50 am

    And reciprocity is no longer about etiquette if you turn it into keeping score.

    I have had mooching friends, but they were moochers on all levels. If someone doesn’t invite me over for each time I invite them, but we’re good friends, who cares?

  • Angel November 30, 2012, 5:22 pm

    My husband and I host a large Memorial Day picnic each year. In the past we had 50 people or more. Because of the fact that we have it outside, we don’t mind of the numbers go up above what we were expecting. If we were expecting 30 and get 40-50, not usually a big deal as long as it’s not 100 degrees or pouring down rain.

    The only pet peeve that I have regarding reciprocity is, you invite people to your party and then you literally don’t see them at all the rest of the year. And when they come they completely take over your house and let their kids run amok. If the guest is gracious, behaves appropriately (this includes watching their kids) and says thanks for inviting us at the end of the evening, the reciprocity issue doesn’t bother me all that much. Now if they are ungracious guests and on top of that do not reciprocate, or even make an attempt to see me or my family the rest of the year, that’s what’s going to put it over the top for me–eventually they don’t get invited back.

  • Angel November 30, 2012, 5:25 pm

    And just wanted to add, my heart goes out to the OP for having to live in a hoarding situation. Or massive clutter issues. My mom has this same issue and I am relieved that I don’t live at home anymore. It hasn’t gotten too much worse over the years, but certainly hasn’t gotten any better. And you can’t make them get help either–they have to want to get help for themselves.

  • Cat Whisperer December 1, 2012, 6:24 pm

    I agree completely that OP is indeed reciprocating her friends’ invitations by taking them separately out for special meals and outings. Reciprocating isn’t necessarily returning hospitality exactly in kind. It can consist of other acts of extraordinary kindness and effort, such as:

    –Helping a friend prepare for their party by assisting them with shopping, cleaning their house, and setting things up; then helping with the clean-up afterwards;

    –Acts of kindness such as driving them around when their car is in the shop, taking them to and from the airport when they’re travelling, or watching their house and/or pets for them when they’re out of town;

    –Presentation of extraordinarily thoughtful gifts, not necessarily expensive things but items or actions that represent great effort or generosity on the part of the gift-giver that shows a closeness and appreciation for the relationship;

    –Supportive actions on a daily basis, even in small ways, such as listening to you bellyache about work without criticizing you or complaining about your attitude, being there for you when you’re going through a difficult patch in your relationship with partner/spouse; showing a genuine interest in things you’re doing even when there’s a high boredom factor involved.

    Some people are just real gems in so many unspectacular, ordinary every-day ways that all add up to being a gigantic and treasured part of your life, and their ability to reciprocate exactly in kind is just trivial compared to the daily joy they bring to you. At least, that’s how I feel.

  • Cat Whisperer December 2, 2012, 2:29 am

    Some comments about the OP’s expressed hoarding situation:

    My dad was what I would call a “neat hoarder.” He filled up his desk and dresser drawers with what he called his “files,” and when the drawers filled up, he packed stuff away in boxes and the boxes were stowed in the closet.

    It was a control-freak issue as much as anything else. He kept old receipted bills, cancelled checks, tax returns and tax documentation, correspondence relating to financial issues and so forth. He was convinced that by hanging onto this stuff, he was maintaining absolute control over his financial situation and could deal with any situation that came up.

    When he passed away, I had the merry job of sorting through this stuff and dealing with it. My dad had not discarded a single cancelled check since 1963; he had receipted bills for everything from the newspaper subscription to vacations he and my mother had taken, each bill with a notation of the date and check used to pay it, dating back to the late 1960’s. He had every bank statement and credit union statement he’d gotten since 1961. And on and on and on and on.

    Regarding all the comments about what the OP “should” do to help her mom, I have some different advice.

    Trying to help someone who does not believe they need help is an exercise in futility and an absolutely guaranteed way to burn yourself out. People who are broken stay broken until they decide for themselves that they are broken; then they find a way to get themselves fixed.. You absolutely cannot fix someone who does not believe they are broken.

    So: my advice to OP: since you believe it’s your duty to take care of your mother, your first duty is to take care of yourself. You can’t help your mother if your burn yourself out.

    Accept that your mother is going to hoard. You cannot insist that she not hoard. However, you can insist that she not threaten her health or your health by cluttering. Filing boxes are your friend; show your mom what boxes are available, and encourage her to use the boxes: a box for current bills, a box for financial records (like bank statements) as they come in, a box for tax information, and so forth. If she will accept your help in putting things in the boxes as they come into the house, offer to do that for her. Hint: it helps cut down on clutter to take things out of the envelopes they come in and to throw away any non-essential things that came with the essentials. It seems as if every bill you get nowadays comes with at least a couple of advertising circulars for goods or services, or announcements of some kind, or other things that are non-essential to the item received. If mom will allow it, throw that stuff away.

    When a box gets full, get mom to find you a place to store it. Then forget about it.

    Concentrate on keeping things manageable to a level where they aren’t creating a hazard. Beyond that, don’t burn yourself out.

    Your mom probably would benefit from counseling or therapy, but until she decides to make that decision herself, pushing her is probably a lost cause. You have to pick your battles, and I suggest you concentrate on making sure she gets medical help that she needs. Make sure she sees her doctor regularly and make sure the doctor knows about her condition.

    Take care of yourself. There are support groups available, both with actual physical meetings and on-line, to help YOU deal with the stress. What’s most important is for you to be able to understand that you are not responsible for “fixing” your mother and you are not a bad person, or inadequate, or negligent in some way, if you cannot figure out a way to make her get help. Once you accept the caregiver’s role, it is unfortunately true that a lot of people will dump on you for “failing” to fix your mom. These people are well-meaning but ignorant: unless you get a legal declaration of incompetence for your mom and are appointed her guardian, she is legally and morally responsible for her own well-being and you could even be arrested for trying to force her to act contrary to the way she choose to act. There is no “failure” on your part for not getting her to change. A support group can help you to understand that, and to cope with the situation.

    It’s a sad fact that you can love someone unconditionally, and can want to help them, can be prepared to help them, can feel great guilt and stress and anger for not being allowed to help them. And that you may have to stand back and watch them go to hell in a handbasket while knowing full well that if they would only let you, you could fix the situation. That’s one of the reason why caregivers frequently break down and burn out trying to take care of people they love: the powerlessness to make the person you love understand that you want to help them, know how to help them, and would make life better for them if they would just let you do it.

    What you can do to help your mom is very limited until she decides she needs and wants help. So get help for yourself in learning to accept that that’s the status quo, so you don’t break down or burn out. Good luck and best wishes. Been there, done that, burned out three shredders after my dad died cleaing things out.

  • Mabel December 2, 2012, 2:20 pm

    Your mother is not a borderline hoarder–she IS a hoarder. She needs help. Professional help.

    You don’t have to have people over in order to reciprocate. Take them out to lunch, or go somewhere together. Also, people who are truly your friends will understand the circumstances, so it’s okay to explain to them that because of the condition of the home, you can’t entertain there. People are a lot more flexible and understanding than we give them credit for.

  • Karen December 4, 2012, 2:12 pm

    As long as you try to reciprocate in some way, your friends will know that you care and are not a user.
    Sometimes all it takes is a friendly phone call or a birthday card to show you care. Folks who have big houses and unlimited resources still like to be thought of even if you cannot entertain in your home. If someone consistently invites you to parties, dinners etc and you do not reciprocate in any way, do not be surprised when the invitations stop….they probably think you do not care if you never act like you care.

  • Julia December 7, 2012, 4:25 pm

    I’m with Angel – I host regularly, because I am lucky enough to have the space and finances. But SERIOUSLY, some folks just never reciprocate – I truly don’t see them except at parties I host. Because of the way the social circles all overlap, I don’t feel like I can exclude some people and not others (also, the people who don’t reciprocate are, I believe, totally oblivious to the fact that reciprocating is the acceptable thing to do). Often, I’ll get a quick thank you as folks leave, but sometimes I don’t even get that, nor any sort of thank you afterwards. I love hosting, but I am starting to feel like I don’t want to bother.

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