The Difference ‘Scruffy Hospitality’ Makes


Some years ago now, an article kept showing up on my Facebook newsfeed praising what was referred to as “scruffy hospitality.” Scruffy hospitality, the author wrote,

means you’re not waiting for everything in your house to be in order before you host and serve friends in your home. Scruffy hospitality means you hunger more for good conversation and serving a simple meal of what you have, not what you don’t have. Scruffy hospitality means you’re more interested in quality conversation than the impression your home or lawn makes. If we only share meals with friends when we’re excellent, we aren’t truly sharing life together.

Friends who shared the article online jokingly wrote things like, “Finally! There’s a name for our lazy way of hosting people!” And yet I couldn’t help but think so fondly of the people in my life who embodied this way of being — who put relationships before possessions, who didn’t let a small or messy home delay spending time with others.

I recall, for example, attending a wedding in the Midwest shortly after I’d returned from an international volunteer program. The bride and groom were fellow volunteers, and their wedding was a beautiful reunion of many dear friends who had all lived abroad together. Many of us were in the throes of transitioning back into life in the US — looking for jobs, starting graduate programs, or back home with our parents — and our budgets were tight.

A young couple who lived in the city where the wedding was taking place offered their home to any of us who needed a place to sleep. The accommodations wouldn’t be fancy, we were warned — they were effectively hall managers in their building, and their humble 2-bedroom, 1-bathroom apartment wasn’t luxury by any means. But they didn’t let that get in the way. They borrowed tents to set up in the back yard and acquired air mattresses, sleeping bags, and extra pillows and blankets for us all to use.

In the end, around 16 of us stayed with them for the weekend. We pitched in to make meals, waited patiently for our turn in the bathroom, and had a lovely and truly relationship-focused weekend together.

This example of “scruffy hospitality” may seem a bit extreme — and yet, I think many of us can take a few notes from my friends who didn’t flinch at the thought of hosting 16 of us for a weekend in their small apartment. While I can’t claim to have completely mastered the art of “scruffy hospitality,” it’s an art at which I seek to continually grow. For anyone who may be looking to do the same, I humbly offer three suggestions:

Don’t postpone welcome

For my first two years of graduate school, I lived with several roommates who were also graduate students. As is often the case during those years in our early-to-mid-20s, our budgets were tight and our apartments were furnished with couches from Craigslist; mismatched plates, forks, and mugs were sourced from Goodwill. It wasn’t fancy. It didn’t look like anything you’d see in a magazine. And yet, we didn’t postpone welcome. We hosted Easter brunches and dinner gatherings and birthday parties. We nurtured relationship, right over those mismatched plates and forks.

If you’re just getting started in a new city — or if you don’t have the budget (or the desire) for matching dinnerware or fancy serving platters or wine glasses — don’t let it get in the way of hospitality. Your guests care more about how you make them feel than about what you have.

Let your guests help you

My husband and I had our first apartment together in Boston. It was a humble, sunny one-bedroom in a triple-decker, but had no dishwasher. We loved to have friends over for dinner or small gatherings, and we found that as the evening drew to a close, friends would linger in our kitchen, quietly slipping into the role of “dishwasher” while the rest of us dried things and put them away.

Instead of insisting that our guests sit and relax with their feet up — though we would have, if that’s what they needed! — we gratefully received their help. In doing so, we found some of our most meaningful points of connection while washing plates and bowls and wine glasses, right there in that dishwasher-less kitchen.

If your guests offer to help you, I’d suggest erring on the side of grateful acceptance (while always using your judgment, of course.) Doing so can be equalizing — and, in working together, you may discover new ways of connecting with each other.

Invite people into your “unfiltered” life

These days, as a parent to two small children, I’ve come to particularly appreciate the friends who make themselves at home in the “unfiltered” reality of my life. Sure, on a better day I’ll try to turn on our Roomba and give the bathroom a quick wipe-down if I know guests are on the way. But on the days when friends or neighbors pop by on short notice, I’ve stopped apologizing for the toys strewn on the floor or the kitchen table covered with art projects and sippies of milk. Our home is where we do our living — and I find that when we are genuine and authentic in sharing our lives, no one seems to mind the mess.

The truth is, when friends allow me to see the “unfiltered” reality of their own lives — when I enter someone’s home to see a stack of unfolded laundry, dirty dishes in the sink, or a messy playroom full of toys — I feel relief. It turns out I’m not the only one who doesn’t live a picture-perfect existence! In sharing the reality of my family life with my friends, I can provide a genuine and authentic window into our world in a way that just doesn’t come across on my Instagram feed.

So next time you find yourself tempted to delay hospitality, take a quick moment to check in with yourself. Explore, with gentleness and curiosity, what might be getting in the way. Consider which parts of your “mess” are really non-negotiable to clean up versus what no one will really notice or care much about. Think about lowering your standards of perfection in order to prioritize relationship. You may find that both you and your guests benefit, after all, from a bit of “scruffiness.”

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