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Be a good host and guest this party season

By Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Manners always matter. Rude is ever rueful. And the "anything goes" era has up and gone.

Even with e-vites and other technological advances, comportment is again important when it comes to parties, for both host and guest.

Since a blip just after the middle of the last century, when "let it all hang out" roiled the world of party protocol, social graces are in, and bad form is so five minutes ago.

It's not hard to do the right things when it comes to holding or attending a social gathering. With a few tips on decorum and a dollop of common sense, anyone can elicit a hearty "Mama raised him right."

For the host

Before:

  • A "save the date" missive, via email, is never a bad idea if you're more than a month out.
  • Nail down whom you want to invite. Try to avoid inviting some but not all of a particular group (workmates, clients, a book club), lest feelings get hurt.
  • Send invitations at least two weeks out, preferably longer.
  • If someone has not RSVP'd by the allotted date, call them. This lets them know you really want them to come, and hey, the invite really might have gotten lost in the mail.
  • If guests volunteer to bring something, let them, unless it just doesn't fit with the type of party you have in mind. And nail down exactly what the item and quantity will be.
  • Let all guests know about any parking issues in your neighborhood. (And if you can figure out the snow emergency rules, please let us know.)
  • If you're having a dinner party for more than six, devise a seating arrangement to maximize guest enjoyment and interaction. Place cards are a nice touch.
  • Have plenty of soap and hand towels accessible in the bathroom.
  • Isolate your pets. Between the animals' potential behavior and your guests' potential allergies, this is not the time for intermingling.
  • During:

  • Get all the preparations done at least a half-hour in advance so you can have a few moments to relax. That's a courtesy to yourself and also allows you to:
  • Meet all guests at the door. No exceptions. Don't make anyone walk through what might be a roomful of strangers to find you. And smile when you see them -- good vibes and all that.
  • Have a space for guests to put their coats, purses, umbrellas, etc. Take them -- or designate someone to take them -- to this spot, so they'll know where to find their stuff when they leave. In wintry weather, this often includes a place near the door for shoes (and let guests know if it's OK to keep their shoes on).
  • In the likely event that some of your guests aren't acquainted, "work the room" by pulling together strangers who might not know they have something in common (sports or travel or small children, maybe; politics or religion, not so much).
  • Try to find time to talk to everyone, and to not seem distracted when you do. Be on the lookout for guests who seem isolated or uncomfortable.
  • Try very hard to say goodbye to each guest and thank them for coming. If possible, refer back to a conversation you had earlier in the evening.
  • If anyone has had too much to drink, get them a cab, a ride with another guest or a bed at your home.
  • For the guest

    Before:

  • RSVP ASAP: The phrase stands for "repondez, s'il vous plaît," but there's no "please" about it. Do it, if possible well before the "deadline" date on the invite. Planning a party is tough enough without knowing how many guests will be there.
  • If you're not sure how the whole e-vite thing works, call the host. (E-vite is an online invitation and RSVP service.)
  • Offer to bring something, or to help with prep or cleanup. If the host demurs, bring a gift: chocolate, sparkling or dessert wine, flowers (in a vase or pot), fudge, cocktail napkins, brownies.
  • During:

  • This should be a no-brainer, but do not bring guests who were not invited to the party unless you have cleared it with the host.
  • Don't arrive starving, especially at a cocktail party.
  • If you bring wine as a host gift, do not expect it to be consumed at the party.
  • If you're the last to leave, do so very soon after the next-to-last folks to leave -- unless you have volunteered for cleanup duty.
  • After:

  • Within a few days of the party, call or write a thank-you note. And while it's not a tit-for-tat deal, reciprocating with an invite to your place, even for a glass of wine, is good form.
  • More guest behavior

    Laura Barclay of Etiquette Centre of Minneapolis offers this advice:

    "Hosts get caught up in trying to do everything right and they forget about the relationship. Don't worry about 'Am I serving the right meal?' or 'Is this the right centerpiece?' It doesn't matter if all the flatware or plates match. Be present at the event and socialize."

    Guests need to be thoughtful too. Some common faux pas that Barclay notes:

  • Arriving too early or too late (fashionably late varies by region of country, but usually 10 to 15 minutes late is OK for a dinner).
  • Monopolizing the conversation.
  • Dressing inappropriately.
  • Double dipping.
  • Drinking too much alcohol.
  • Bringing a gift when "no gifts" has been communicated.
  • Checking emails or talking on your cellphone.
  • Handing out business cards at a dinner party.
  • Starting an argument.
  • Not bringing a hostess gift.
  • Eating together

    Eating with others at a shared table is one of the most important human activities, says William Beeman, professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota. There's even a word for it: commensality.

    "There's not a society on Earth where human beings don't engage in eating together as a really important activity," he said. "The process of eating together actually takes on the quality of a kind of social ritual."

    Consider how people, gathered around a table, generally don't start eating until everyone has food.

    "That little principle of starting at the same time is widespread on the planet and almost universally observed," said Beeman.

    Meals often have a ritual that reflects the beginning of the event, be it a toast or invocation as simple as "bon appetit!"

    Most table manners reflect a transition between the act of eating and other kinds of social life. In many societies, there may be a kind of hierarchical movement to the table, with the most prominent people first and then others following.

    Think rank doesn't matter in this country? At the White House, there is a chief of protocol who makes certain that people are placed at the dinner table in the right order. "The person who sits next to the first lady gets the real place of honor, and you might be insulted if you don't get that place," said Beeman.

    The act of eating is not particularly pleasant to watch, regardless of culture. Beeman noted that the physical body is an important boundary everywhere, and rituals are set so we make sure there's a clear transition between inside and outside (such as ingesting).

    Societies try to make eating as gracious as possible. In cultures where food is to be eaten with fingers, for example, hands are washed in public, as a courtesy to others.

    Generally, table manners are intended to facilitate the social event, whether it's a dinner party or a family sitting together at the table.

    "The goal is for the meal to go along well for everyone," Beeman said.


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