August 1, 2008

Houseguest Awkwardness: "Can I Help?"

I was very glad to hear that I am not the only one who suffers from Houseguest Awkwardness, where I WANT to help but feel too awkward to offer, or where I DO offer but then mess up what I'm given to do.

You know what I think the problem is, is that it's REALLY HARD to help at someone else's house, but it doesn't SEEM hard. Like, they say, "Oh, um, sure! Why don't you set the table?" That's easy! Even the children can handle THAT. But a guest doesn't know where the dishes are kept, or which set of dishes to use, or whether this is a "napkins under the forks" family or a "napkins in a holder on the table" family, or whether to put out the bread plates.

Or the hostess might say, "Oh, okay, you could get drinks?" But what are the drink choices I'm supposed to offer? And is this a "grab ice cubes with bare hands" family or a "use the cup to scoop up ice" family? Is it a "two ice cubes per glass" family or a "ice cubes up to the brim" family or a "dad hates ice and no one thinks to mention it because it's automatic by now" family?

Or one time, the hostess asked me to tear the lettuce for a salad. And I had always, always, CUT the lettuce. So I didn't even know what she was talking about! And the lettuce was right from her garden, and it was an unfamiliar variety to me---I didn't even know which parts were edible and which parts should be trimmed. Should the thicker, whiter part up the middle of each leaf be included, or removed? And I tore the pieces way too large, so she had to go back and surreptitiously re-tear. Also, she assumed I knew it needed to be washed first.

Or, my mother-in-law asked me to make a pie. MAKE A PIE. I don't, uh. I mean! PIE? And to her it's easy, because she's made that before, but to me it's brand new! So I look like an idiot because it's a frozen crust and a can of filling WHAT IS THE BIG DEAL? But I've never done it before, so of course I bumble around and look like the stupid useless daughter-in-law who can't even handle a convenience pie.

I think the ONLY way for a guest to help is something like, "Oh, great, could you stand here at the stove for me and stir this sauce? It just has to be stirred constantly." The thoughtful hostess could perhaps plan in advance to have something non-essential (water with food coloring and parsley in it, for example) simmering on the stove, to ask the guest to stir.

34 comments:

shannon said...

This is EXACTLY why when I have a guest at my home who offers to do something I almost always say a polite "No thank you! Everything is under control" even if it's clearly not under control at all. I'd much prefer someone to sit at the table and chat with me while I do the work. I always feel bad asking people to do something when I have invited them to my home. Which is not to say that I feel bad if someone asks ME to do something when they have invited me over to their house.

Anonymous said...

Ah, yes. As a child, I was sent into my grandmother's kitchen to "help" her because when my mother would help her, my grandmother would later accuse my mother, her daughter-in-law, of stealing items from her kitchen. So I bumbled around helping Grandma instead. This put me off helping for LIFE.

Elizabeth said...

Oh, Swistle, you just KILL me. The colored water with the parsley? GENIUS. My mother, the soul of good hostessing, usually asks someone to light the candles on the table (while handing them a lighter) or asks them to slice the bread, while handing them a bread knife. So those are two more ideas for you.
And who says "Yes, please make a pie?!!!" when asked if they need help?

Stacie said...

I really prefer houseguests not to help. Really. They should SIT there and EAT the cheese I offer and DRINK the wine I pour and STOP DOING MY LAUNDRY and STOP PUTTING THINGS AWAY IN MYSTERIOUS PLACES and...

Can you tell my in-laws have been visiting? Again?

jen said...

haha... I think about this all the time. I was thinking about it the other day because I was the only one among my friends who can't just pick up and start helping in the kitchen.

But the more I think about it the more I refuse to feel awkward. If you want me to do something specific you can just tell me. If you want me to do something like "make a pie" well then, you're going to get my interpretation of pie, sorry.

On the other hand, I'm great at stepping up and doing things that other people are too shy to do. Because I figure if they have any complaints, well, they shouldn't have been too shy! Like the time everyone was standing around flapping their arms about cutting a cake, and I just DID it, unevenly, too, but they all thought I was a hero.

Michelle said...

The image of someone stirring colored water with parsley in it CRACKS ME UP! Thank you!

For me, I ran into this tonight when I had an aunt and uncle and my parents and sister over for Little Miss's birthday. They all asked to help, so I let them. I started each job so they could see what it took, and then handed it off. That seems to work the best for me.

The other thing (when I'm in the flip situation) is to ask questions. As the hostess, I'm totally fine with someone asking how or what or where or whatever.... So I'll do the same. And if they think less of me for asking, whatEVER. :) I've got too much else going on in my life to worry about that.

Kate said...

Oh swistle, you are hilarious and WONDERFUL.

That's it :)

Natalie said...

That last line is why I adore you, Swistle. Nobody says it like you do.

The last time I was visiting anybody and asked to help, I got chided for not setting the table correctly.

Uh, yeah, I've never had an ettiquette class in my life so I have no freaking idea where the utensils proper places are. Now I've got a phobia. I should just look it up, shouldn't I?

Nah, that would be too easy.

Jess said...

I experienced this problem when I first moved in with my host family in France, except it was even worse, because not only did I not know where they kept the plates, for example, but also I didn't know what the word for plate WAS--so when they asked me to get an "assiette" I had no idea what I was even LOOKING for. Oh my god it was terrible. I had just moved into their house for a year and I was desperate to be helpful, and yet so clueless. Kitchen items were some of the first words I learned when I moved there, out of pure necessity.

Ginaagain said...

When people ask if they can help me I usually answer "Yes! Please sit here and talk to me."

Sam said...

Okay, the real question is this: what in the world is a bread plate? I think we must call it a salad plate. If someone asked me to put out the bread plates, then I would totally look like a country bumpkin with no upbringing. You are so much further ahead than me, Swistle, because at least you KNOW!

Natalie, I too was chided for not setting the utensils correctly - by my grandpa! (He used to work in food service, military officer clubs, etc.) And so for years I would choke and have to ask my mom.

the new girl said...

HA HA!
Colored water with parsley! Mmmm.

Or, they could just say, 'NO.' As in, 'No, no, you just get comfy in the living room, I'm FINE in here.'

That's the kind of hostess I like.

catnip said...

You can come over to my house anytime, I won't let you lift a finger, other than to bring your coffee cup to your lips. :)

aibee said...

The only correct response to the question of "what can I do to help? is "drain your wine glass, refill, repeat".

Kristin.... said...

I am much mor apt to do it all myself, because the houseguest that wants to help is usually my aunt (who only comes for meals, thank god she doesn't stay) and her kind of helping is JUST.NOT.WHAT.I.NEED. So, when she wants to bring something for our Thanksgiving dinner, I tell her to bring cheese and crackers (easy!) and then when she wants to help in the kitchen I grit my teeth and tell her we're all set. She still hasn't gotten the hint after all these years.

fairydogmother said...

That is exactly why when we have house guests we are generally a take-out and paper towels sort of family. If we are feeling fancy we might order pizza and eat off of real plates. ;)

Except when my honey's mom comes to visit, but that is only because she falls under the mom rule where she insists on cooking once or twice while she is here and we let her. Because although it makes me feel like a terrible hostess, it makes my honey and her mom happy.

Also, PIE?? Um, when I was little my grandma used to make pies from scratch but even that was only for holidays. Otherwise pies always came from the bakery section of the grocery store and they were FULLY PREPARED. My mom might not have taught me how to cook, but she did teach me how to shop!

anna said...

I had the exact same lettuce problem happen in Germany. I had never seen anything quite like the veg she handed me and when I did it all wrong she laughed and said something like it was like cooking with a child.

Uh, she wasn't as mean as that makes her sound.

But anyway. I love this post.

fairydogmother said...

Jess's comment made me realize that I took three quarters of french in college and I also didn't know the word for "plate" until just now. (Thanks, Jess!) What's worse is I vaguely remember learning that sort of vocabulary in a long ago high school spanish class, but for the life of me I can only come up with the words for fork, spoon and knife. Although I might have spoon and knife confused, and it took some concentrating to even get this far.

Paul said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
HollyLynne said...

Oh, I've always got a pot of parsley and food coloring on the hob, you can come over to stir anytime :)

Shannon, I absolutely agree . . . I always ask people to "just keep me company!" instead of asking them to help with any cooking.

Erin said...

These are excellent examples and a perfect solution. I was all shaking my head dramatically while reading, and then I can't come up with one single example myself. But I HAVE THEM. Just can't access them at the moment.

Amber said...

This is just fantastic! I love it. THANK YOU.

I've been living with this problem for over two years now... I live at the in-laws place, and it's so tricky. Half the time I've been pregnant and can't stand the smell of the kitchen here anyway, so I CAN'T help, and feel like a terrible daughter-in-law. (At least she doesn't ask me to bake a pie!!) The other half of the time, I don't know how to help in her very particular way she does things. I don't get why laundry is sorted by fabric type and not by color and which detergent and how much is supposed to be used when (And I've been doing laundry since I was in first grade. Apparently I've been doing it wrong)...

So I've been living as an awkward house guest for years now, and I'm freaking out needing MY OWN kitchen...

And I grew up in a house where my mom would grab my friends, visiting for the first time, and put them to work immediately before they ever offered. And there was no possible way to say no to my mom. (There's a reason we live with my in-laws instead of my own folks!)

d e v a n said...

Too funny! I have a problem asking people to help me when they come over. Even if they offer, I usually decline. I like them to just sit and talk to me. Unless it's my MIL. Then I prefer she leave the room.

Eleanor Q. said...

After a couple incidents of burned rice, not knowing how to make salad dressing and other uncomfortable moments, I now only offer to help clear. If guests ask if they can help me, I point them to the stools in the kitchen and say they can keep me company while I "get a few things ready."

Farrell said...

So essentially, treat your house guests like men, and then everyone will be all set.

Stella and Thomas said...

I actually have this funny story. After dinner at friends house, I (of course) started to help clear the table. Well, the hostess and her husband and then MY husband all sat down in the living room. I have this huge mess...pots, pans, dishes to clean up. An hour later, the hostess said, " that was so thoughtful of you to clean up". At least she acknowledged it:-)

Smiling Mama said...

I think the best thing to tell a houseguest is "oh, just stay here in the kitchen and keep me company. It is so nice to have an adult to talk with while I get dinner ready."

Melissa said...

Alright, not exactly the same thing. But my mother invited me down the shore for a week in September. My Dad will only be able to stay for a couple of days and she doesnt like being alone.

Problem is, I dont like being alone with my mother! I need a fricken buffer. My sister will be down with her family just a few houses down, but that isnt enough. I am 39 and she forgets that ALL the time. I try to help in the kitchen and she constantly tells me I am doing it wrong. Helping her in the kitchen is taboo. She says she wants help and then gets mad because you arent doing it HER way.

When I told her last night that I would think about it I could tell she was hurt. GAH!

Is it ok to tell your own mother that you will gladly vacation with her if she promises not to drive you batshit crazy?

Is it possible for 2 grown women to be on vacation with the mother daughter relationship without driving each other crazy?

Danell said...

A pie? Your mother-in-law sounds so absolutely over-the-top batshit crazy that I'm not sure I would be able to take her seriously at this point if I were in your shoes.

And (I can totally relate to stacie!) my own mother-in-law does laundry INCLUDING MY UNDERWEAR the whole time she is here. I have given up fretting about it and just consider it a nice little service she provides.

Kitchen Vixen said...

2 things:
1: That last line about the food coloring is hilarious!!! But what if they thought it was a sauce and poured it over your gently steamed salmon?? Must be careful about monitoring that pot...

2: I've been cured of asking friends to help in the kitchen. I had a recent incident involving a girlfriend who didn't know how to zest and I ended up with large pieces of lemon peel, pith and all!! I discreetly did not add it to my baked good we were making.

Laura said...

I went through this once at my professors' house. It was SO. AWKWARD. I mean, I had already graduated so they couldn't subconsciously affect my grades with my poor salad making skills, but still! Augh!

Miss Grace said...

Ugg, yes. My mom always asks guests to arrange flowers, since she thinks it's pretty hard to mess up.

Pann said...

yeah....

and when your kitchen is tiny like mine? Guests just get in the way. I would love for someone else to help, but finding a way for them to help is really hard.

Then I am MORE, not less, stressed out.

Leaf, probably... said...

My worst houseguest story: I stole biscuits because i was hungry - worse yet I got CAUGHT stealing biscuits.