As we approach the summer months, we begin dinner party season! Here is some etiquette advice to keep in mind if you’d like to be a gracious guest.
Before you arrive
The very first thing to do is to Rsvp as soon as you can, ideally in writing. Responding in writing gives your host something concrete to reference back to when gathering their headcount. Many hosts like to hold on to Rsvp notes as a memento of the event. This is also your chance to let the host know if you have any allergies or dietary restrictions and come up with a plan to accommodate them.
The day of the event, respect how your host has decided to pace the night by prioritizing punctuality. You shouldn’t expect your host to hold their plans for longer than 15 minutes. If you’re running late, call or text your host as soon as possible to with an ETA.
Historically, the number one rule for attending dinner parties is to never show up empty handed. But, after consulting with our etiquette experts, we have some nuance to bring to the table, pun intended.
Above all, the primary goal of bringing your host a gift is to say “thank you” without creating more work for them. Bringing flowers? Make sure that they are pet friendly (if your host has one) and be willing to arrange them upon arrival. As wine, chocolates, and flowers are common gifts, feel free to stray off the beaten path. A good book, a candle, or a lovely box of stationery are great host gifts.
Similarly, it’s important to make sure that your host will even be receptive to your offering in the first place. For example, brand friend Stephanie Cain mentioned that she doesn’t always appreciate unexpected bottles of wine. “As a wine writer, sommelier, and someone who puts a lot of thought into my meals and cocktail parties, I usually have specific bottles I’ve picked for the night… So when someone arrives with a current vintage Napa Cab when I’m serving scallops and cheese as aperitifs, and demands we open it, I’m annoyed.” If you decide to bring wine, don’t push it on the host to serve it at dinner. Instead, present it as a gift for the host to enjoy later.
Above all, etiquette is about courtesy – checking in with your host about their needs is the best way to be a stellar dinner party guest. If they request that you don’t bring anything, listen to them. There are other ways to be helpful throughout the night.
Good conversation is what makes a dinner party worth having. Ideally, a host will pick their guests with fostering good conversation in mind.
Immediately make a point to break the ice with those you don’t know as well. While it gets a bad rap, small talk can act as the connective tissue to more substantive conversation – getting to know those you’re less familiar with early on makes it much easier to get to that substance. The desire to avoid stilted conversation is understandable but, as brand friend Robert Dimmick astutely pointed out in his column The Etiquetteer, “disinterest in breaking ice just looks arrogant.”
At a dinner party, the goal of all conversation is to connect. If you’re talking about yourself, try to wrap things up by offering a talking point back to the group. Keep an eye on when people aren’t being listened to in conversation and offer your attention. If someone is telling a personal or sensitive story, pause your eating or drinking to listen. These courtesies will not go unnoticed. While healthy debate can be exciting, try to keep conversation palatable (no pun intended). Avoid contentious topics, especially in the company of people you don’t know well.
At the Table
Discussing table manners can feel elementary but, as conversation gets lively, they often slip the mind.
At the beginning of the meal, the host takes priority when making a toast. If they decide not to initiate, a guest can take the lead, typically toasting to honor the host or to the occasion if there is one. Keep toasts brief and sincere. If you want to make a lengthier toast, know what you plan to say ahead of time to avoid rambling.
The meal officially begins when the host picks up their fork. Depending on how formal or informal the occasion, you may have multiple forks and knives at your place setting. A reliable rule of thumb is that utensils are placed in the order that they’re used, working from the outside of the place setting to the inside.
Cell phones should be completely away and silenced – this is a time to be present and engaged with your company. As conversation picks up, remember to fight the urge to speak with your mouth full. And don’t forget about the basics: use your napkin, ask for things to be passed to you as opposed to reaching, and keep your elbows off the table while eating (though it’s okay to have them on the table after it’s cleared).
When the Party’s Over
As things wind down, promptly offer your help cleaning up the space. If the host declines, find creative ways to be helpful so that the host doesn’t have to delegate; taking the trash to the curb, loading the dishwasher, and assembling doggy bags are just a few ideas. Some hosts prefer to have guests feel completely taken care of while others are more open to guests pitching in. At the very least, make sure that your place setting is clear of any garbage.
If the invitation has an end time, respect it – it’s the host’s way of telling you what time to wrap things up without having to initiate. If not, do your best to gauge if the night is coming to a close. It can be uncomfortable for a host to ask people to leave so ideally the guests will know not to overstay their welcome.
Within 24 hours after the party, send the host a thank-you note. It’s always affirming for a host to know that guests appreciated their efforts.
Have an etiquette question? Ask us! We source etiquette questions on various topics every month on our Instagram @DempseyCarroll .