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A little bit of background: I am an international graduate student at a university in the US. A domestic friend invited me to his apartment to celebrate Thanksgiving Day and we had a great time on that day. By the way, He lives in an apartment with his wife.

Now I am thinking about reciprocating the invitation but I share an apartment with two other renters so technically speaking it’s not a good choice to host my friend in my own apartment.

Christmas is coming and I am going to give my friend and his wife gifts. I’m wondering if that would be considered properly reciprocating or not. I also was thinking about inviting them to try a new restaurant but during the pandemic, it might not be a smart choice…

What is the proper etiquette with regards to reciprocating Thanksgiving dinner invitations?

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  • Christmas gifts are often considered a thing by themselves. If you get them something, they may feel inclined to get you something as well, even if your gift is intended to be in response to them inviting you to dinner.
    – NotThatGuy
    Nov 28 '20 at 22:02
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There are a couple of things in play here. One is that, you, being an international student, don't have a "place to go" for Thanksgiving. For us Americans, gathering together for holidays is important and many of us would gladly invite someone we know over so they are able to celebrate with us, rather than leave them alone for a holiday. Personally I always (except this year) post on my FB page that friends who have no where to go are welcome at my table.

The important thing about a gift is that it is given without intent to receive something back. In this case, it was (IMHO) a kind of gift to give you a family to celebrate an important national holiday with.

Obviously you want to do something for them, which is appreciated. And true friends don't always receive - they give as well. In the end, with friends, it always works itself out. Your idea of taking them out to dinner would be appreciated, but in this COVID time is probably not a good idea. I wouldn't give them a gift certificate - that makes the gift more of a transaction for the meal than a reciprocal gift.

The key here is to give as you are able. Personally I wouldn't expect a gift of equal value to the meal we served - the real gift from me (in this case) is not being alone, rather than the meal. For someone in school who is just making ends meet, a lavish gift could be a hardship - and one I couldn't in good conscience enjoy.

So.. I've rambled and given some background. From my perspective, a nice thank-you card would be an appropriate response to being invited over for Thanksgiving. They cared enough to invite you over; you cared enough to acknowledge it and say "thank you" for it. You don't have to "pay them back" and a return gift in kind is nearly impossible. If you want to treat them to a meal, offer to take over their kitchen for an evening. You mention that you are an international graduate student - do you know how to cook? Serving them an authentic meal from your homeland would be appreciated - it would be something they don't normally get (I assume) and it returns the favor. (Just remember to clean up after yourself when you're done cooking!!)

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  • Hi Prussian! A very valuable answer. Although I am not good at cooking, "taking over" their kitchen is still a very good suggestion. Thank you!
    – Frank
    Nov 28 '20 at 6:23
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    "The important thing about a gift is that it is given without intent to receive something back." This may be true in the USA, but in some cultures the only motivation for a gift is that something will be given back, unless the recipient wants to become a persona non grata.
    – alephzero
    Nov 28 '20 at 12:30
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Your thought is quite polite, that is returning the invitation. Under normal circumstances you inviting them out to a restaurant is entirely valid, but mostly as a gesture of friendship, not directly as 'reciprocating' on Thanksgiving.

Why? Well, Thanksgiving is 'special' in a way that Christmas is not. Partly this is because Christmas might actually be Hanukkah, or some other celebration, and all in all it just isn't the short time period, highly specific holiday that is Thanksgiving. In a normal year, most students would head home if they could. And then, if your roommate or friend can't make it back home (cross country, cross borders), it is totally normal to invite them to your home (or to the parents or grandparents) to be part of the celebration. There is always enough food to go around, and an extra person or two is easily taken in stride.

As an example, right now I have my two children back home from university, and one of their friends who was not going to fly cross-country right now and has too much work due next week to do the drive (after the semester ends they will have time for the drive). We had planned for two additional people as well, but their plans had to change (again, end of semester assignments so it just didn't work out).

But, as the semester winds down, and people have a month or more until classes start back up, more and more people go home from univeristy or go off to visit relatives. The Christmas holiday is just more diffuse.

So, appreciate that you have good friends who would invite you for a lovely Thanksgiving dinner. Treat them at some later point, but not specifically in response to this invitation - just enjoy being able to treat them as friends. If that is possible over the holidays, if you are both in town, even better. But inviting 'extras' for Thanksgiving is pretty well ingrained in the US.

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  • Hi Jon. Thank you for your clear explanation. This makes me curious about what Americans will do to celebrate Christmas typically. Do you invite friends to houses or just spend time with significant others?
    – Frank
    Nov 27 '20 at 20:54
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    @Frank - the time from slightly before Christmas eve (and Hanukkah days) to New Years Day allows for quite a range of having large parties, a few friends over, relatives visiting, work get togethers, etc. Again, more diverse and more diffuse.
    – Jon Custer
    Nov 27 '20 at 21:14
  • Thank you! Now I am not restricted to Christmas day!
    – Frank
    Nov 28 '20 at 6:28
  • @Frank - in fact I would specifically stay away from Christmas Day itself - that really is for close family gatherings with presents and whatnot.
    – Jon Custer
    Nov 29 '20 at 0:46
  • I see. Thank you, Jon!
    – Frank
    Nov 29 '20 at 6:27
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Thanksgiving is not a holiday where the invited guest is expected to reciprocate.

Thanksgiving in the U.S. is simply a holiday where families of all kinds — direct family and otherwise — gathers to share a meal.

It is not a holiday of gift exchanging. The guest’s presence at the meal is a gift enough.

And not to be too crass about this, but if you are cooking for 4-5 people or 7-8 people the effort is close to the same. Won’t nitpick, but when you cook for large groups — or work in food service on a line — it all just becomes a matter of ratios and not much else.

So you enjoyed the meal and that is enough. That said, the meal has passed, but keep this in mind:

In general if one is invited over for Thanksgiving dinner they might ask if they should bring anything and that is considered the “reciprocation.”

When it comes to Thanksgiving, guests in the U.S. often ask what to bring over. Depending on familiarity and skill, it could be as simple as buying a few bottles of wine, grabbing some dessert such as a pie and such. But this is not a strict rule:

But if the hosts say, “Don’t worry about it…” just send them a thank you card and such.

As an international graduate student studying in the U.S. I don’t think any of the above applies. You are a guest in the U.S. and were invited by others to share a Thanksgiving meal. Maybe if you asked if you should bring anything at the time of the invite, they might have requested you bring something. But I doubt it; the purpose of Thanksgiving meals is to share them and not reciprocate.

“I also was thinking about inviting them to try a new restaurant but during the pandemic…”

Even if there wasn’t a pandemic, that would be incredibly awkward. I would hate to be on the receiving end of saying “No…” to something like that because honestly that’s a very loaded request. Don’t do that.

Instead a few things come to mind:

  • While You are Still in the U.S.: If they need help for any reason — such as moving or something similar — be there to help. You might be able to say, “Hey you invited me over for Thanksgiving, so no worries!” But in general just you being there to help might be thanks enough.
  • When You Leave the U.S.: I made the assumption that you will leave the U.S. at some point, so apologies if I am presumptuous. But if you do leave the U.S. you might want to send a “Thank You” package to them when you get back to your home country. Nothing fancy or too cheap, but something simple that says, “Thanks so much for being a great friend/colleague while I was in the U.S.…”

Neither one of those things are really that crazy or “weird” in the context of reciprocal respect, but the basic message is clear: Your Thanksgiving meal is not a single event that should be seen as reciprocation but rather a part of a larger relationship you have with these people.

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  • Hi Giacomo! Thank you for your answer! Thank you for pointing out thanksgiving is different. Just out of curiosity, why would people think an invitation to try a new restaurant is loaded?
    – Frank
    Nov 29 '20 at 6:55
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    @Frank “Why would people think an invitation to try a new restaurant is loaded?” Because Thanksgiving is not a reciprocal holiday, and you are a visitor to the U.S. so they want to be polite but not rude and refusing an invitation to a restaurant presented as a gift is considered rude to many. The reality is you are overthinking it. Don’t do anything past remembering the gesture and paying it back in the future if/when an opportunity avails itself. And if one doesn’t? Just note it when you leave the U.S. and send them a thank you card. Nov 29 '20 at 17:23

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