My last post was about how to be a good host. But there’s another element in the hospitality equation: the guests. For a get-together to be a success, the guests have their part to play too. The host could do everything right but if her company makes a lot of social faux pas, the dinner could go so south pretty fast. On the other hand, if the host flubs up in some way—perhaps the main entrée is overcooked or she’s late getting the dinner on the table—depending on how the guests respond, the evening could still be a success.
This is something I’ve thought a lot about lately, not just when company comes over to our house, but even more so when we get invited to other people’s homes. A well-behaved guest can make things go much more smoothly for the host, and make it a much nicer evening for everyone present at the party. Not only that, if you’re a “good guest,” you’re much more likely to get a repeat invitation!
To me, the most important things a guest can do are:
--Accept invitations promptly. If you get an evite, don’t stay undecided for weeks on end. It may not bother you to wait until the last-minute to decide if you’re coming. But for the host, it’s always better to know way in advance of a party, how many are coming and how many to plan for.
--If you can’t make it to an event, give at least a brief explanation why. Always thank the hosts for inviting you, even if you can’t come.
--When you receive the invitation, ask if you can bring something to contribute to the meal—perhaps a bottle of wine, a tossed salad or other side dish, or a dessert. I know I always appreciate it if my guests can help out by bringing a salad, because then that’s one part of the meal I don’t have to worry about.
--Arrive at the event promptly. This is especially important if this is a formal dinner, where the timing of the meal is very precise. A host may be able to keep an entrée warm in the oven only so long before it dries out. Not only that, the host may find herself in an uncomfortable decision of either starting the meal without you, or waiting for you to arrive (while the other guests may be starving!). Of course, sometimes genuine emergencies happen and you can't be on time. A good rule of thumb is to call the host if you are going to be more than 15 minutes late.
--Don’t arrive early either—unless you’ve called the hosts first to make sure it’s okay. Often it’s the 15 to 30 minutes before guests are to arrive that are the most frantic for the host, because that’s when all the last-minute cooking needs to be done. Sometimes too that’s when the hosts are scrambling around trying to quickly tidy up their home before company arrives.
--Once dinner is served, take your cues from the hosts. It’s standard etiquette to wait until the hosts sit down and pick up their forks before the guests start eating. Now if I'm not ready to sit down yet but my guests are already at the table, usually I’ll suggest they go ahead and start eating without me. But don’t do so unless you’ve been given the “green light” from the host. During the meal, try to pace your eating to that of the hosts.
--If you like the meal, let the host know. If the main entrée tastes delicious, tell her! Many people are insecure about their own cooking, and appreciate hearing that someone else likes their food. (And even if a hostess isn’t insecure about her cooking, she’ll still appreciate a genuine compliment!) If the host is obsessing about the meal—worrying that it isn’t up to par—reassure her that you appreciate her doing all the work and find something you like about the meal that you can compliment her for.
--Don’t leave anyone out of the table conversation. Talk about topics that most everyone knows something about; avoid subjects that are of interest to only one or two people at the table. Don’t dominate the conversation, or interrupt when others are talking. Dinner parties are a great time to practice good listening skills.
--Steer clear of off-color humor and offensive or controversial table topics. This is particularly important if you don’t know some of the other dinner guests very well. If you start spouting off about your staunch political views, that could be the beginning of a disaster if your guests also have staunch but OPPOSITE political views. If you discover that the other guests have strong, opposing views, keep your perspectives on those topics to yourself—unless you know the other person and you are certain he/she is interested in hearing another opinion and you can discuss the topic respectfully.
--When the meal is over, offer to help clear the table, load the dishwasher and wash crystal, silverware and china. It’s amazing how quickly kitchen clean-up can go when several people pitch in together. And it can actually be kind of fun. I have some of the best conversations with other wives while we load the dishwasher together, while our husbands sit in the other room and have their “guy talk.”
--Know when it’s time to leave, and don’t overstay your welcome. Be able to read your hosts’ body cues and take the subtle hints (if they give them) that they’re ready for the party to end: the hosts yawn, they talk about their busy day ahead or how early they have to get up in the morning, they look at the clock and gasp, “Oh, it’s 11 o’clock already!” Those are all cues that it’s time to leave. (Of course, I’m a night owl, and usually what happens at my house is it’s 10:30 pm and my guests are yawning and saying they need to leave, and I’m just getting energized and saying “Do you really have to go this early?!!” But I know not every host is like me!)
--Extend your thanks warmly as you leave. A day or two later, it’s nice to follow-up with a thank-you card (by email is okay, but a hand-written drop-in-the-mail card is especially nice these days!).
Those are my thoughts on the subject. What about you—what kind of expectations do you have for your dinner guests or for yourself when you’re a guest in someone’s home?