Why I Think “Presentable” is Overrated

comfortable instead of presentable

“Okay, now that I’ve seen your house it feels okay to invite you over to mine.” She said it with a sigh that was something like relief but also with a smile that invited me to friendship. I laughed, my heart warmed by what is still one of the best compliments I’ve ever been given.

We met at a church play group when my oldest was 2 and my youngest a newborn. Her kids were 2 and 4. I was new in a small town where everyone else had grown up together. My accent betrayed me as a foreigner. Everyone was friendly but I had no friends, and I was lonely. So perhaps I was feeling a little desperate that day when I spontaneously invited her over after play group. What else could have caused me to forget in what state I’d left the house that morning? There was that special chaos created by trying to leave the house with a toddler and a newborn, on top of the more general messiness due to exhaustion, plus that we never have unpacked every single moving box in any place that we’ve lived. Ever. And this was no exception. How I’d managed to forget all of this I cannot explain, but as I welcomed my guests in the door and put down the baby carrier, it came back to me rather quickly. My house was anything but presentable.

These may have been extreme circumstances – new baby, toddler, recent move – but the reality is that I’ve always been a bit messy. I have good intentions and great ideas in theory, but it just never seems to work out the way I plan. Besides the mess, I am a terrible decorator. I don’t have that knack that some people have to see details that make a home lovely. It was this way long before I had children, but with two high-energy little people running around… well, at least I have a better excuse now.

I didn’t grow up in a family where we spontaneously invited people over. Inviting people over was primarily event-driven (birthdays, graduations, etc) and accompanied by a several day cleaning marathon such that by the morning of the actual event everyone was exhausted and edgy. And in the end things didn’t have to be perfect, just presentable. These days, I love an impromptu gathering. But my background tells me that making my house presentable is a lot of work and requires a bit of planning.

I’ve thought a lot about this word “presentable.” For a long time, “presentable” to me meant good enough, or at least not too embarrassing. And I think this is what a lot of people mean when they say it. But really, “presentable” means able to be presented, right? Other definitions include phrases like “acceptable in appearance” and “fit to be seen.” When I wonder if my house is presentable to my guests, I am, in essence, assuming that they are evaluating my house, and by extension, me.

I, then, act accordingly. I am uncomfortable in my own space, which makes my guests equally uncomfortable. I apologize for or attempt to explain things that they may not otherwise have cared about, or even noticed. If I’m worried about the presentation of my house, the visit becomes some kind of evaluation and I’m seeking to impress. My friends are transformed into my judges, through no fault of their own. My “hospitality” is all about me.

Recently I’ve tried to replace the word “presentable” with “comfortable” and it’s made all the difference. While “presentable” is about my performance, “comfortable” is focused on my friends and their, well, comfort. “Presentable” looks around the room searching for flaws to correct or hide. “Comfortable” looks around and asks if there are places to sit down, if the toilet is clean, if there are clean teacups in the cabinet. “Comfortable” doesn’t apologize for our house showing signs that we live here, and it doesn’t insult our friends by assuming they are judging us. It drops the facade and trusts our friends to know and love us as we are, even if we’re a bit messy and bad at decorating. They may even feel free to do the same.

So come on over! Have a seat there next to The Cat in the Hat and Cinderella Barbie. I’ll put the tea kettle on.

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