Tuesday, November 14, 2006

How to be a Great Guest

The holiday season is coming -- and along with decorations, Christmas presents, Jewish holidays, and family everywhere come the ubiquitous party invitations. In an effort to not sound like Miss Manners (whose rigidity and unhelpful answers often make me want to hurl -- or hurl things at her), I have noticed that sometimes the finer points of being a guest are lost on people. Some people, certainly not just Hoosiers, seem to have lost a bit of perspective when it comes to attending holiday soirees whether a full-blown dinner or a casual get together. Hosting can be hard work and for many of you who've thrown a party, you sometimes know that feeling that it wasn't worth it. A good guest should never make the host (directly or indirectly) feel that having people over was a wasted effort, no matter if the food is pate de foie gras or cheese in a can. But sometimes, we get a lot of invitations and sometimes, in an effort to pick-and-choose, we risk being rude. In an effort to make you look like a holiday party star this year, here are some reminders:

1) RSVP. Always try to RSVP if you can. It's very helpful to know roughly how many people are coming. If you have a last minute change in plans and can attend or have to cancel, your hostess will be very polite about it. (These numbers tend to even out.) But you should try to at least Respond, Sil Vous Plait!

2) Be polite about guests. Let your host or hostess know if you're bringing a guest (especially if you're usually a single) or coming alone if you're part of a couple. (Sometimes we hostesses know people who haven't met each other, she said with a sly wink.) The invitation to bring a guest is usually implied, but it's nice to let party-givers know how many are coming -- especially if it's a smaller party. It's critical for dinners. Additionally, one guest invitation does not imply many and it's rude to show up with an entourage, unannounced, even if you're a rap star. Make that extra call ahead to make sure it's OK if you bring a few extra people.

3) Never arrive empty handed. Yes, Miss Manners would say, the host has invited you and doesn't expect you to bring anything, and I would say they're probably not going to notice or care (unless they were counting on guests to bring, say, wine). However, if you aren't expected to bringing anything else but yourself and possibly a guest, you should bring something for the host or hostess. It doesn't have to be wine, and in fact, in Europe flowers are the norm. Sometimes I bring other small tidbits like mulling spices or dried lavender (from the farmer's market in the summer). Be creative! Bring a candle, chocolate, tea in a fancy jar, an ornament for their tree, or something you made yourself. It doesn't have to be expensive, just something you think your hostess would enjoy. It's not payment for the party; it's a thank for hosting.

4) Respect the dress code. Yes, I know that many people embrace a "casual lifestyle" because they hate dressing up. But the way you dress shows respect to your host or hostess, the other guests and yourself. Dress for many holiday parties is filed under the catchall "holiday attire" which usually means anything from jeans with nice blazers over them (for men on the casual end) to little black dresses for women (on the more dressy end). (You'd could put a cashmere blazer over a tree stump and I'd find it appealing but that's another post.) You can always add a little holiday spice to an outfit. It doesn't have to be the Santa Clause tie or the sparkly Christmas sweater (although it that's your kind of thing then this is the certainly the time to wear it.) Hot? A sprig of mistletoe in the lapel.

5) Unless noted in the invitation, kids are usually not on the menu. Here's one RSVP I received the other day for an upcoming holiday party I'm hosting myself. The invitations were very heavy card stock printed invitations sent by mail. Guests were asked to RSVP by email or phone. "It doesn't look like your party is very kid friendly so we can't come." You're right, it's not kid friendly. There will be a lot of adults there having adult conversations and drinking wine in a home that is decidely not kid friendly. I'm fairly sure your six year-old will not enjoy the foie gras terrine or the Stilton with port wine and black pepper syrup. Get a sitter or don't come, but please do not try to make me feel guilty because I'm throwing a party where you can't bring your children. Adults go to adult parties. See also, Never Be Rude.

6) What you see is what you get. I'm just a big a believer in hosts being polite and that includes having non-alcoholic and vegetarian options for guests. However, many a vegetarian has found themselves surveying a buffet table where every dish includes some kind of meat or seafood. (A Jewish friend of mine was once stuck at an "all-bacon" affair that the host thought a clever idea.) However, part of being a guest sometimes means putting up with inept hosts. While a very polite simple inquiry "did I miss any non-meat dishes?" is fine, complaining is not. Sadly standing with an empty plate is rude, and for goodness sake, rummaging in the hosts cupboards is not OK. (I once had a guest come out of my kitchen with a can of hot chocolate mix and ask "Can I have some of this?" He'd just opened a cabinet and found it.) Many hosts provide bottled water and sodas these days as people like to drink a bit less. Politely ask where any non-alcoholic options are without making an issue of it. See also, Never Be Rude.

7) Never be rude. Being an impolite guest is one of the worst things you can do. You can show up empty handed with extra guests in tow, but if you're rude or disrespectful to the host or hostess, it overshadows everything. Well, I'm never rude, you say. I mind my manners! Well, I'm sure you do. But here's a reminder anyway: Don't get drunk -- or at least, don't get obviously, falling down, everyone-knows-you-can't-drive-home drunk. This forces someone to have to deal with you and/or worry about you when you leave. Don't insult other guests. This includes interfering with warring couples, insulting people, or (and I'm not kidding) getting involved in an altercation. (I've seen punches thrown in very fancy mansions in Carmel.) Don't arrive then leave early unless you have a very polite reason (real or manufactured) including emergency, another affair, or child-care. And just try to at least act like you're having a good time. If you're not, then invent a very nice, polite excuse, and go drink at your favorite bar. Don't create something your host or hostess will have to deal with that will take away from them enjoying your company and their own party. And never make the host or hostess feel like they threw a bad party.

Many of these are common sense rules -- and I'll most likely provide lots of tips for successful hosting this year as well. Hosting parties is hard work! (Sometimes as hard as going to them all.) And happy, polite guests can make it all worth it.

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