Richmond Proper: On Hoverers

A particularly sensitive subject around the holidays is the phenomenon of hovering guests. These are not party-goers who literally levitate above the floor, but who follow their hostess around like a shadow while she tends to her duties.

A particularly sensitive subject around the holidays is the phenomenon of hovering guests. These are not party-goers who literally levitate above the floor, but who follow their hostess around like a shadow while she tends to her duties. Recently I have had an alarming number of run-ins with this type of guest and have been completely clueless on how to gracefully extract myself from the situation. Entering my house with guests for a post-movie cocktail, I said “Have a seat and I’ll get you some drinks” and hurried off to the bar. Instead of having a seat, one guest jammed his hands into his pockets and stood in the center of the room staring blankly and looking uncomfortable, while another guest barked “WHAT IF I DON’T WANT TO SIT DOWN?!” Another time, I had an old friend over for tea and cookies. Seating her on the couch, I said “I’ll be right back with our tea.” After I had been gone for twenty seconds, she sauntered right into the kitchen and continued our conversation where we had left off in the living room.

The offensive thing about hoverers is not just that they roam the house when asked to sit down, but that they refuse to allow you to serve them. Perhaps the behavior stems from a good-natured desire to help out, or maybe it’s a sick inability to take hospitality when it’s offered. While it’s rather unnerving to feel a guest’s hot breath on the back of your neck while you pour drinks, the more common problem addressed by etiquette mavens relates to cooking specifically. Guests are always congregating in the kitchen as a hostess finishes preparing a meal, ignoring the other room where she has set out hors d’oeuvres and put on music. The following excerpt from Helena Eichlin’s Chow.com article describes the conundrum well:

Sociable cooks think of the kitchen as the heart of the house, the place where everyone hangs out. They feel excluded if they are stirring risotto while their guests are laughing in the next room. Their ideal kitchen has an island with barstools.

But solitary cooks—like myself—like to concentrate when they cook. I need to enter a kind of flow state: I’m beating egg whites while remembering to check the pasta while plotting what will go into the salad. It disrupts my flow if I have to listen to a guest’s anecdote about what happened while he was at the DMV.

Some solitary cooks may feel uncomfortable about guests watching them cook because it spoils the surprise when they finally bring out the food. They don’t want people to see them double-dip the tasting spoon or eat the soggy bit of Parmesan rind they used to flavor the stock. It’s like having your date watch you pluck your eyebrows and powder your nose.

As a card-carrying member of the “solitary cooks” class as well as the unrelated “no short-term memory” club, I can relate to the need for concentration. Luckily, there is help. Eichlin says “I recommend being straightforward: ‘I’m really enjoying your company, but if you go and sit down, I’ll get everything done faster; then I can relax and focus on our conversation.’” Another Chow.com contributor, Lessley Anderson, says “Make guests feel comfortable somewhere else. When they arrive, sit down with them in the living room first, bring them their drinks there, and introduce them to others. Better yet, get a friend to play surrogate host in the living room, while you sneak back to the kitchen. Like parents who put their baby down before leaving him with the sitter, your guests won’t notice your absence if you ease them into the less familiar social situation.”

But what should guests do when they’re not sure where the host expects them to be? “Ask the individual cook if you should go into the kitchen or not,” says Judith Martin. The Emily Post Institute agrees: “If you make the offer to help and the host firmly declines, back off—some people really don’t want guests in their kitchen.”

Richmond Proper needs you here, valiant readers! Let us know what’s worked for you and what hasn’t in your quest to force your guests to calm down, stop following you, and enjoy themselves.

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Tess Shebaylo

Tess Shebaylo is a freelance writer, crafter, history geek, and compulsive organizer. She works at Tumblr and lives in Church Hill with her husband, Dan, and their two cats.

9 comments on Richmond Proper: On Hoverers

  1. My trick: a quick tazer jolt to the neck. Not only do they quickly sit down but they also immediately stop talking about the weather, their kids, their awful job, etc. Party on, Wayne. Party on, Garth.

  2. Haha you win, Kent…although, what would Miss Manners say?!

  3. Potluck! Although a taser may be necessary at potlucks as well, but this way you can tase more discretely, and away from the comfort of your own kitchen.

  4. Seriously though, I’ve seen teenagers in my neighborhood tase each other for fun.

    It also occurred to me to add that the only hoverer to which this article doesn’t apply is maybe a best friend, who is always expected to come over early and roam around the kitchen, tasting the soup while you’re cooking it and all that jazz.

  5. I like hoverers! I set up my kitchen purposefully so that people could sit around and pour me wine and entertain me with stories while I finish making dinner or cake. Otherwise I feel isolated and depressed — I’m doing all this work but the party is out there! That’s interesting, and maybe it explains why my mother-in-law is always like STOP ASKING TO HELP, I HAVE IT UNDER CONTROL. I assume everyone wants the company. Guess not?

  6. Yes, some people do like hoverers! I think you like it because you, my dear Susan, are blessed with the talent known as Being Able to do Two Things At Once. Unfortunately, I am not. This can lead to all sorts of disasters if people hover, like pouring sauce down the drain while talking to them, etc. So yeah, your mother in law probably does not want to accidentally put her apron in the oven and her roast in the kitchen drawer. But my friend Mandy, for example, has entertained me lots of times while she baked and I sat in a chair helping her out with Official Taste Tests. And I LOVED it. Loved it. Yet if I had tried to do something similar, I would have broken out into a cold sweat trying to have a conversation and mix something at the same time.

    I hate spending the party working rather than socializing too, which is why I’m really into the concept of Having Everything Completely Done By the Time People Get There. This way, I only have to excuse myself every once in a while to do some small task….and that takes us back to the hovering thing…….

    But I think particular situations have a lot to do with it, too. For example, I’ve sometimes invited a couple of people over to bake Christmas cookies, and it was no big deal that they were hovering because (1) that was the point, and (2) it was just a couple of very close friends. But I’ve been close to freaking out when getting things ready for a large dinner party and several acquaintances got there early and planted themselves firmly in the kitchen.

  7. Allie on said:

    Tess, you should remember that one of the most important things about being a good hostess is that you need to be able to adapt to all kinds of guests. The most important thing here is that these people care about you and wanted to spend time with you, not that they didn’t behave exactly how you wanted them to once they were there.

  8. Absolutely! So, in order to keep guests as happy and healthy as humanly possible and at the same time manage to NOT ruin their meals or make their meals end up 3 hours late, I think the polite advice from the Chow.com folks can help. And in the meantime, we 50% of hostesses who can’t entertain and cook at the same time will keep wishing for that blessing to come to us.

  9. Nayagan on said:

    tess,

    those “sick” people unable to accept graciously offered hospitality are likely introverts.

    see here for the PROPER caring of:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/past/issues/2003/03/rauch.htm

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