Party Manners

Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter which fork you use.  Emily Post, 1922

Does etiquette exist? The idea seems as quaint as the calling card. And yet, we all face situations where we wonder, “What’s the right thing to do?” Or put another way, we find ourselves in situations where we are uncomfortable and wonder, “Am I being weirdly sensitive? Behind the times?” I count myself in the latter category when I am at the dinner table with a texter. Or an e-mail checker.

I agree with Emily Post’s definition of manners. To be civilized is to be sensitive to others. One person does not make a conversation or a party.

As a host or a guest at a party, what are the rules? Opening up your home to guests, your mission is to provide a welcoming atmosphere. A guest’s task is to enjoy themselves and show appreciation for the host’s efforts and generosity.

In concrete terms? Here are some basic tips for parties.


Invite your guests by telephone, e-mail, a written invitation, or a shout over the back fence. Give them a little time to respond. People rarely respond instantly and unfortunately, many never respond. So be prepared to follow up your invitation with a phone call to confirm. Don’t be embarrassed to do this.

Guests! Don’t assume your host will somehow know you’re coming. Be courteous and direct: say yes or no as soon as you can reasonably do so. Also, unless your host is a very good friend or your mother, don’t ask if you can bring your kids or your dog. If they are to be included, your host  will make that clear.

Naturally,  there are exceptions. If you have houseguests, for example, ask your host if it’s okay to bring them – and if it’s a big party, the answer is sure to be yes. As a host, you may not plan on having kids at your cocktail party but if you’d like to include the parents of a new baby, it is considerate to ask them to bring the baby because they may not be able to come otherwise.


Greet your guests. If it’s a large gathering, let them know what to expect. For example, you might say, “Put your coats in the bedroom. The bar is in the living room. Help yourself, please!” Try to introduce each guest to at least one person or tell them if someone they know is already at the party.

As a guest at a large party, try not to monopolize your host who is trying to welcome everyone. It’s especially nice for a host to see guests talking and introducing themselves to new acquaintances.

What about a ‘hostess gift’? Not necessary. An act of generosity is admirable but bring a gift if you want to, not because it’s expected.


Inevitably, there will be guests who will be late but as a host, be on time. That means, be dressed and relatively calm when people arrive. If you are rushing around with beads of sweat on your upper lip, wearing a grease stained apron, your guests will get nervous. They won’t think ‘Party!‘, they’ll think ‘Work’. So just stop whatever it is you’re doing about thirty minutes before people arrive, get dressed, and be ready to greet.

You’ve been invited to a party at 7:00. Don’t be early. It’s not great to be late either but it really puts a strain on your host if you show up when the shower’s still running.

What’s For Dinner?

When you’re planning the food for a party, especially a large one, it is considerate to have one or two non-meat choices. If you’re serving alcohol, be sure to have some water and juice as well. Be prepared to point out any dishes that might pose a problem to guests with specific food issues but do not feel you must ask every guest what they can and can not eat.

As a guest, take responsibility for what you eat at a party. Ask your host to tell you if there are foods you must not eat but do not expect your host to provide you with a separate meal. If children are included at the party and they are beyond infancy, do not bring special food for them. Assume your host will be feeding everyone. If your children only eat certain foods, feed them in advance.

What about hanging out in the kitchen? Everyone seems to do this and often, it’s just fine, even helpful. Sometimes, guests are in the way. Be sensitive to what will make your host most comfortable.

A Lamb Chop for a Lamb Chop

My grandmother’s expression. She believed that if you accept an invitation you have duty to return it. I see her point but with time, I have realized I don’t agree. Some of the best guests hate to give parties. And many hosts would much rather throw a party than go to one. You’d have to be crazy to exclude interesting people just because you haven’t been invited to their house.

Having a Good Time

As a host, you’ll know that a party is a success by the noise and the laughter. With some advance planning, good food and drink, and a compatible group, you can count on a successful party.  You will have made your guests welcome and comfortable and after that, a good party has a life of its own.

Say, guest, did you had a good time? Acknowledge it! Telephone, e-mail or even write a thank-you note within a few days of the party. You need to let your host know you enjoyed yourself.

 Recently, Kate Welch of KBOO, a radio station in Portland, Oregon spoke to me about this subject of manners and etiquette and asked a thoughtful question. “Right now, times are tough for many people. Do you think parties serve a purpose?” I felt she was asking whether there is a frivolous quality to party-giving in a solemn climate. Well, I think the times offer all the more reason to get together. Comfort and enlightenment come from social interaction.

A few years back, I was at a dinner party with about 10 guests. At a certain point, the whole group became involved in a serious conversation. There were several differing opinions and the talk, while not bitter, was earnest. This went on for some time without much resolution. Suddenly, one of the guests told a joke. A very good joke.

This was followed by another joke and then another. Soon, we were all laughing, wheezing, dabbing at our eyes, and holding our sides. To me, this proved just how important parties are: all of us at that table needed to talk about serious matters, even if we felt divided. And after that, we need to laugh to bring ourselves back together.

We live in a multi-cultural world that embraces flexibility. Traditions have changed but polite social behavior (perhaps a better term than etiquette) is enduring. Parties continue to be a great way to interact socially. So don’t worry about which fork to use and concentrate on the essence of good manners:  putting each other at ease.

Please your guests, thank your hosts, and consider your time well spent in the company of others. 

12 comments on “Party Manners

  1. Jeanne Govert says:

    Loved your update on manners. You did not, however, directly take on the cell phone junkies issue! I know it’s not polite to ask them to leave their phone home, but how can you politely tell them not to text while at the dinner table? I’m talking adults here, not teens!!!

    • It’s a tricky one, Jeanne… I agree it’s very odd behavior but customs (ergo, manners) are in constant flux. What seems intolerable to some of us is entirely normal to others. The key is to know who you hang out with and be respectful.

  2. Rolf Rykken says:

    Mary, this column was so rude! Haha!

  3. Hi Mary,
    I was recently with my grandchildren (ages 18 – 25) and their friends. Quite frankly I was glad I could text and read emails just like they did. It was rather shocking to me when I found myself clicking away in response or chuckling at what I just read, then looking around to share it with anyone. Have I succumbed or am I keeping up with the times?

  4. I think you are keeping up with the times!

    But here’s this comment regarding RSVPs from my friend Jacki:
    I would like to add…”I am going to try to make it”, is NOT a response to an invitatioin. The answer, as you said, is either “yes” or “no”….grrrrr

  5. What? No hostess gift necessary. My Mom would disagree! She always told me not to go to someone’s home empty handed. Since I keep bees, I always found that a jar of honey was welcome but it is good to now that it is not required.

    • Linda, I stand by the no hostess gift. Again, it’s a generous and kind thing gesture (and for many people, like your Mom, it’s second nature) but since when has it become an obligation? I never even heard the term ‘hostess gift’ until about 10 years ago. There’s a strong commercial link, I suspect, to this ‘custom’.

  6. Stephanie Deutsch says:

    Great post, Mary. Really important and interesting topic (to me at least — I love to give and to go to parties.) I totally agree on many subjects (please do rsvp, please do not feel you need to bring a hostess gift). Another of my pet peeves. “What can I bring?” Well, I’m inviting you to dinner at my house. You don’t need to bring anything and when I come to dinner at your house I don’t expect to bring anything or, frankly, to do the dishes.
    RE texters at table — utterly annoying! But I have not yet started yelling at them and asking them to leave. Many are related to me by blood…

  7. Valerie Hill says:

    Great topic Mary, I think it is so important not forget grace these days. As for the texting, unless you are a doctor or your mother is gravely ill….check them with your coat!

  8. Judy Dawes says:

    Love the new topic. I so agree with trying to make people feel comfortable and not worry about certain social graces like which fork to use etc. I also really liked the section about inserting humor when the subject matter turns to serious. I will try to remember a good joke – but for me that always seems to be a problem.

  9. Joan Erath says:

    Thanks, Mary…first time I have had the chance to read your beautifully written blog.
    I agree with you completely on the entertaining stuff…I never use the word “party” any more…just
    ask people to come for dinner and let them know if others will be there. One of my pet peeves is “hostesses” who are secretive about their guest list. Let me know how many people are coming and who they are…no other info necessary. OR…if it will just be the four of us (or three).
    Hostess gifts these days are unnecessary. No one needs any more possessions, food, or flowers to be arranged while your guests are arriving.
    And we all need to remember that our responsibility as guests is to be good company…to be entertaining, amusing, and a good listener.
    And asking what you can bring? It is so routine here, and if the gathering is last-minute and everyone is busy, fine for people to pitch in. But I would much rather do it myself and not try to work in what someone else has presented. And cleanup? I feel awkward when someone takes control of the cleanup and leaves the table to do it, while others are still talking. Frankly, I consider it intrusive, and I am not grateful.
    Too much said, but I look forward to more of your posts.

  10. Dear Joan,
    Thanks so much for your thoughts and yes, I can see that we are both on the same page. (I so agree about the cleanup- leaving the table to do that is instrusive.) Glad you enjoyed the post.

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