Surprise! I’m at Your Door

There’s no question from readers this week. Instead, Helena will tackle a dilemma presented to her at a recent TV appearance.

I was interviewed on the Rachael Ray show a few weeks ago, and an audience member asked, “I hate when my friends go through trouble to get things in order when they know I am coming over, so I like to stop by unannounced to see them. Is it ever OK to do a drop-by visit?”

These days arranging a get-together with your friends can be fraught with difficulty. Trying to schedule a dinner party, or even meet for drinks in a bar, may take more than a dozen emails to coordinate. Most likely you’ll end up with a date two months away, and then you’ll have to send out a reminder or people will assume it’s not happening. A surprise visit obviously eliminates these types of hassles.

Moreover, I believe that paying a surprise visit should be viewed as a huge compliment to the host. It’s not a prearranged obligation, so it shows you really want to see your friend. And since there are no hors d’oeuvres to fiddle with, nor any specific activity planned, there’s nothing to distract the two of you from having quality, unscripted time together.

But what if, you may ask, your host is in the middle of something he doesn’t want interrupted? There’s a solution to this. Instead of ringing the doorbell, I recommend calling your friend when you’re five minutes away. If he doesn’t want to be bothered, he can screen your call. If he wants you to come over, five minutes is just enough time for him to hide any embarrassing items he might have lying about or quickly tidy the bathroom.

When you drop by unannounced, you may find your host is a bit reluctant. Don’t take this personally. We’re so used to planning every minute of our time that spontaneity can make people anxious. He might be inwardly panicking about getting his chores done or missing his favorite TV show. Break through this resistance by giving your visit an end point: Tell him you’re only stopping by for a quick visit, and don’t stay longer than an hour, at most.

As a guest, you should always try to be low maintenance, and this is even truer for surprise visits. Don’t bring your kids unless your host has some too. And always show up between meals, never right before. If your host seems genuinely eager for you to stay for a meal, then you should help cook it.

Helena will be appearing on the CBS Early Show Wednesday, January 21.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.