The Etiquette of Reciprocity

You do not have to host the same type of party as a Duke. [Via]

When you are given hospitality by someone, it is an etiquette rule that you must reciprocate. Now this makes a lot of people uncomfortable because maybe you don’t have as nice a house or as much money and can’t always entertain in the same style that someone has entertained out. However, that is not the way reciprocity works. It’s not really a tit for tat kind of a deal.

If Mr.and Mrs. Hobnoby have you over for a four course gourmet dinner prepared by their live in chef, there is no expectation that you will invite them to a similar meal in your fourth floor walk up. Part of the reason God invented the cocktail party is so you can “reciprocate” many invitations in one big go that doesn’t cost you a lot per person. Unfortunately, a good hostess gift does not count as reciprocation- it is merely a (important) token of thanks.

Happily, you don’t even necessarily have to reciprocate with some kind of big event. Maybe you have helped someone move every year for the last five years, maybe you always do Friday movies and wine at your place, and maybe you are the person who arranges your weekly lunch date. All of that counts as reciprocation. As you can see, it’s really all about making sure you are both pulling your weight in the relationship and one person isn’t taking advantage of the other. Merely extending an invitation actually fulfills your obligation to reciprocate, and if you are refused, you needn’t do any more (however, this also might mean that the person doesn’t want to be friends with you!)

I should also note that it is important to also let people reciprocate your hospitality.  Even if you intend to be generous, always wanting to host at your house doesn’t give others the chance to shine. Plus, you don’t want to give off the impression that other people’s hospitality isn’t good enough for you.

There are some exceptions to the need for reciprocity. You almost never need to really reciprocate with your parents and in-laws, the parent-child relationship is almost by necessity one where the sides are very uneven. However, occasionally treating your parents to something never goes amiss. I would also say that being treated by a friend’s parent is similar- when they take you and their child to dinner, you are really the guest of the child and should be reciprocating with them (hopefully you will also invite them along when your parents are visiting). Also, a boss employee relationship is one where if your boss takes you to lunch, you do not need to reciprocate (same as how you do not give gifts to your boss) because of the difference in power between the two of you.

Symbols of Hospitality

Charleston has this amazing pineapple fountain to symbolize it's famous hospitality.

Charleston has this amazing pineapple fountain to symbolize it’s famous hospitality.

Just a few traditional symbols we associate with hospitality.


Since pineapple was tropical and difficult to import it was very rare. So a sailor would come home and impale one on the fence of his house to show that “the man of the house” was home and people could come visit.

Since it was expensive and hard to come by, colonial families would serve pineapple as a special dessert when guests came to visit and then the guest would sleep in the bed with pineapples carved on it.

It is also said that when a guest had overstayed his welcome, you would place a pineapple at the foot of his bed and he would know that it was time to leave.

From this history, pineapples became a very popular motif, especially in the South where you can find pineapple designs on everything.


Courting Candle:





A courting candle was used back in the day to mark the amount of time that a suitor was allowed to visit. Once the candle burned down to the top of the candle holder, he had to leave. The trick was that the candle could be adjusted so that it could be really tall, giving the suitor a lot of time, or really short so his stay would be brief.


Bread and Salt:

This is a real thing in Slavic countries, with special decorated ritual bread and salt dishes. The women of the family present the bread and salt to the guest and the guest dips the bread into the salt and eats it.

However, when I had it in my head as a traditional historical custom that meant that the guest could come to no harm in the host’s house, it turns out that I was thinking of the custom from Game of Thrones and not a real thing. Maybe we are due for a post on etiquette in fiction?


There is a good chance that all of these are folklore more than historical fact, but they are still pretty interesting, no?