preliminary unscientific reflections on hospitality

I have not read the great works that have over the centuries concerned themselves with the idea of hospitality and can thus only speak from my limited, though not entirely uninformed, experience; moreover, the following musings mean only to prepare the way for more careful thoughts, which hopefully will ripen during the coming months.

Hospitality, to my knowledge, must go back as far as civilization itself and might even have been one of the first forays humankind attempted into non-kin morality. At its crassest and most essential level, hospitality was probably no more than a shaky agreement among two strangers to not insert a roughly hewn flint dagger into one another’s sleeping backs. As most human institutions, it would then over the years have blossomed into a multitude of attendant rules and conventions that attained its glorious pinnacle when the institution became something of a religiously sanctioned, even holy, duty towards any and all breeds of foreigners who might come knocking on one’s door in the middle of the night.

To get down to my personal experience and the events that precipitated this post, i will look into current practices of hospitality in india and the US. India still seems to abide by an older rule of hospitable behaviour, one that requires rather stringent adherence to specific regulations, namely and primarily those pertaining to the eating of food. A host in india will do her (and at times his) very best to over-feed you, nagging you with refills and springing new and unforseen dishes upon your already weary and overflowing plate (which you are usually holding in your hands while sitting on a couch, a situation that decidedly impairs your ability to instinctively defend and protect said plate with your bare hands). Even when it has become painfully obvious to all present that a given guest is patently satiated, the host will adamantly insist upon supplying more food, while all othery coyly look on, as if one of hospitality’s rules of thumb — that a guest will probably be hungry and refuse to eat all that he or she would actually like to — had been taken much too literally and applied without regard to the dreadful specifics of the situation at hand. This might not be quite “torturing one another with food” as i had some days prior unceremoniously baptised this (not only) indian habit, but it does strike me as missing the point of hospitality by more than a handful of rice.

The american equivalent to this culinary hospitality, the famed “my fridge is your fridge” invitation, actually seems to hit the mark much more accurately. Though i would never venture to assign an essence to the idea of hospitality, nor even to describe its principal features, i feel confident that in this specific case my intuitions do not fail me entirely. Making someone comfortable should, by anyone’s book, rate higher than making them uncomfortable, and unless my powers of perception have remarkably dimmed in the kolkata smog, the hands-off approach to feeding your guests is much less likely to induce some variety of premature death than will stabbing them with carrot sticks.

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3 Comments to “preliminary unscientific reflections on hospitality”

  1. Stumbled here through my tag surfer–quite in interesting perspective. I’m an Indian living in America, and my parents have a tendency to do this to our guests–I suppose it’s something hardwired into their genes? 😀

    Hope you have fun in Kolkata!

  2. Vi – i have subsequently to this post been informed (tho offline) that i failed to take into account the fact that for indians, at least, politeness requires that you initially say ‘no’ to your host’s offers; this, naturally, does not provide said host with any _useful_ information so that he or she must continue to ask, just in case your ‘no’ meant ‘yes’, the meaning of your multiple and ever more adamant nos only gradually sliding into the semantical territory usually covered by ‘yes’. Thankfully, the food usually tastes quite alright… and, yes, i do plan to have fun.

  3. I’m sure you’ll encounter many more quirks in their personalities and attitudes…keep posting, it’d be great to read what you think. =)

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