Holiday Guest Etiquette Guide

By Marissa Ponikowski


If you’re invited to more than a few holiday do’s this season, set your sights on being excellent company. You’ll be lauded as a wonderful guest, invited back again and again–and spared the 'morning after' agony of wondering just what happened after you downed that third tequila shot! From dinner parties to office parties, we’ve put together a list of comprehensive tips that will help you sail through every social engagement the holidays throws your way with effortless charm and good natured cheer.

The Dinner Party

The Basics: Being a good guest begins the moment you receive an invitation to a dinner party. Whether asked in person, by phone, via e-mail or through written invitation, do take the time to review your schedule and respond well before the suggested RSVP date. You must also be absolutely certain it’s okay to bring a guest before you RSVP for yourself ‘plus one’. This can make a host feel awkward if the gathering was meant to be intimate or there just isn’t room, and it looks bad on you, too. And you can forget about being ‘fashionably late’. Instead, read your invitation carefully and show up on time. Departures must be treated with the same gravity as arrivals. Never overstay your welcome, and always offer to help clean up before you go. Your offer will likely be refused, but it’s a lovely gesture that will not go unappreciated.

What to Wear: A dinner party can be a tricky occasion to choose an outfit for. It’s easy to assume that because a gathering is taking place at someone’s home, attire is fairly casual – but especially during the holidays, people tend to get gussied up before they go out. The safest bet for men is dress pants or slacks and a long sleeved dress shirt with a collar. Women should avoid tight, low cut clothing and stick with conservative wrap dresses, skirts, dress pants and blouses or sweaters. It can’t hurt to layer, in case the temperature of the house is too hot or too cold. And it’s always important to wear socks or stockings without holes in the toes, since you never know when you’ll be asked to remove your shoes.

What to Bring: Well before the dinner party, ask your host and hostess if you can bring anything. If he or she says no, don’t show up with an appetizer or dessert anyway. This can throw off a carefully planned menu. The only exception to this rule is if you have food allergies or special needs. In this case, always let your host know ahead of time, and offer to bring your own food or supplies.

While it’s always a good idea to bring a bottle of wine or champagne to a dinner party, you shouldn't expect your tipple to be served with the meal. Hosts often plan wines to go with their menu. If you’re visiting teetotalers, bring flowers, decorative ornaments or scented candles instead of booze.

Pitfall Alert: Don’t bring up controversial topics during dinner – the holidays are no time for heated political debate. You should also pace yourself when it comes to cocktails. It’s very bad form to put your host in the awkward position of relieving you of your car keys, and even worse, should you be allowed to hit the roads, you are putting others in danger as well.

The Cocktail Party

The Basics: The start time of a cocktail party is usually fairly open ended, but you should still make an effort to arrive at a reasonable time. If you’re not sure what’s expected, give your host a call beforehand. Be considerate about your departure time as well and never keep your guests up. Never encourage one half of a husband-wife team to stay up and ‘party’ if the other half seems obviously unhappy with the idea. And never underestimate the power of an early exit. Take a cue from the late journalist and novelist Martha Gellhorn, who used to carry an egg timer in her pocket to every party, gala and gathering she attended. When the timer went off, she went home, no matter how much fun she was having. Sure, this seems a bit extreme, but it guarantees an air of mystery – and will definitely put a stop to any hung-over ‘Did I really do that?’ cringes the next day.

What to Wear: Cocktail parties are a great opportunity to don some festive evening wear, but don’t overdo it with anything too low cut, sparkly or tacky. Men should stick with dress pants or slacks and dress shirts. Women can put their underused cocktail dresses to good use. However, the cocktail dress you choose should be a winter frock, not a summer gown worn with pantyhose. And again, choose run and hole free stockings, since you can’t be sure you can leave your shoes on.

What to Bring: Bringing a bottle to a cocktail party is a nice touch – and this does not just mean bringing a bottle of what you yourself plan to drink. Instead, choose a delicious liqueur or fine bottle of wine and present it to your host in a decorative bag. He or she can choose to share it with guests, or put it away for a special occasion.

Pitfall Alert: Obviously, drinking too much is one of the dangers of attending a cocktail party. These gatherings are not necessarily centred around food, and a few cocktail appetizers do not a sufficient base for alcohol make. Save yourself by having a substantial snack or meal before you leave for the party. And pace yourself by enjoying a glass of water for every cocktail you drink. Skip the soda – the carbonation can actually make you feel intoxicated faster and upset your stomach.

The Open House

The Basics: Similar to a cocktail gathering, arrival times for open houses can be treated fairly casually - but don’t ever assume that ‘anytime after seven’ means you can waltz in at an unreasonable hour. If you have a previous engagement, but would still like to drop by, let your host know your circumstances rather than assuming that anything goes. An open house style gathering will likely include friends and family members from many areas of your host’s life. Be prepared to meet new people and tone your anecdotes down a bit to suit mixed company. The host’s mother-in-law will likely not appreciate tales of your frat boy (or frat girl!) carousing days with her offspring.

What to Wear: Keep it fairly casual for open houses, unless your host indicates otherwise. By nature, open houses are casual events which means you may stick out a bit in a suit or fancy gown. Men and women can both feel comfortable in dress pants, slacks or nice jeans with fashionable dress shirts and sweaters.

What to Bring: It’s a nice touch to bring a festive gift to an open house. If you’re crafty, and have been making your own ornaments this year, by all means, bring one for your host! If you love to bake, hunt down a festive tin and fill it with sumptuous baked goods - but be sure your host knows you don’t necessarily expect the treats to be consumed at the gathering. You can also bring a bottle of wine or liqueur to an open house.

Pitfall Alert: Never assume there will be food at an open house style gathering. You should always have a meal or substantial snack before you leave for an event like. Otherwise, if there are appetizers, you’ll be following them around like a rabid dog – which is never a good thing.

The Office Party

The Basics: The office party is a staple holiday event, but one that should never be taken lightly. Sure, it seems appealing to party it up on the corporate dime, but you should always keep things in check as this is a situation where career limiting moves can abound. Don’t bother being fashionably late to an office event – it’s better to show up on time and leave before the drunken karaoke starts. Sure, there’s little fun in that, but there’s also less opportunity to embarrass yourself! If you’re allowed to bring a date, choose this person wisely. It’s better to show up solo than bring someone who will only embarrass you with inappropriate dress or behavior. Use the office party setting as an opportunity to mingle, and introduce yourself to colleagues or coworkers you wouldn’t normally get the opportunity to speak to. When noshing on appetizers, be sure to choose things you can eat neatly, and always check your teeth when you go to the restroom. Once you’ve spoken to all of the executives and colleagues you planned to, thank your boss for an enjoyable evening, and get the heck out of there.

What to Wear: Office parties are often fancy affairs. Use the location of the event as the barometer for what you will wear. If the party is taking place at a fairly casual bar or restaurant, wear something chic and trendy, but not too fancy. If it’s at a hotel, banquet hall or swanky restaurant, men should wear a shirt and tie at the very least, and women should wear a suit or evening dress. Do not wear anything inappropriately tight or revealing.

What to Bring: Breath mints. This is an absolute must. Throw a few packs in your purse or pocket to protect yourself from offending important colleagues with your garlic, pesto or shrimp puff breath.

Pitfall Alert: As with any holiday event, you need to keep a handle on your alcohol consumption. This is especially important at an office event, which must be treated as a professional function, not a no-holds-barred party. Also remember that although a corporate party isn’t the best place to make work related commitments or promises, if you do tell someone you’re going to do something, write it down when you get home and take care of it on Monday.



Topics: Entertaining, Holidays, Party, Decorating

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