The holiday party season is in full swing, promising evenings of fun conversation, delicious food, and a chance to catch up with friends you might only see a couple of times a year. It’s a great time for guests, but also a time to brush up on what it takes to be a good guest. (Spoiler alert: it means more than just showing up.)
Here’s how to ensure you’ll be invited back — during the holidays or to a social event any time of year.
Great news: You’ve been invited to a holiday fete or a wedding. Here’s how to let your hosts know you’d be delighted to attend.
If you’ve received a written invitation that includes the words “Regrets Only,” do exactly that: if you’re unable to attend, inform your host. Otherwise, you’ll be expected. If the party is being held by a close friend and you plan to attend, it’s always nice to follow the invitation with a quick call or text to let him or her know you’ll be there and to offer any assistance. In that vein, be specific. If you know your friend adores your cheese straws or special frosé, mention that you’ll be happy to bring them.
RSVP stands for respondez s’il vous plait, a French phrase that translates to “please respond.” In other words, it’s up to you, the guest, to let your host know either way.
Whether your invitation is delivered orally, by mail, text, or email, you owe your potential host a reply as promptly as you can possibly provide one, ideally in the same form in which you received your invitation (unless a phone number or email address is included as a reply mechanism). Not only will this allow him or her to begin to plan for food and drinks but also will offer a potential opportunity for a host to broaden the guest list if you send a regret early.
And what defines early? If you know you’re free — or previously engaged — reply immediately. Otherwise, shoot for within a few days of receiving the invitation. During the holiday season, when parties tend to stack up on certain weekends, you may accept both an important drop-in (say, for a client) and a dinner, as long as you’re up front about your other commitment with both hosts.
Evites and Facebook invitations, with their dreaded “maybe” option, pose a special challenge but should be treated with the same respect as any other invitation. Be sure to include a short note, just as you would if you were replying via email, text, phone, written letter, or in person, and update “maybe” to a yes or no as soon as you are able.
Holidays often bring out-of-town guests; if you feel you must regret because you’ll have company in town, let your host know. If the party is casual or the hosts know your guest, you may be invited to include him or her. If not, don’t suggest it.
Weddings require a more formal approach and have a language all their own. Start with the Save the Date notification. If you are absolutely certain you won’t be able to attend, letting your hosts know at this early stage will be a great help.
If your wedding invitation arrives with a response card, replying is as easy as filling out the card and popping it into the mail. Tip: When completing the card, the M stands for your title — Mr., Mrs., or Miss — and indicates that “Mr. and Mrs. William Smith,” rather than “Mary and William Smith,” should be used. And if your full name is listed on the invitation, your reply should reflect that, so you would write, “Miss Katherine Hampton Reeves.”
Responding when no card is included takes a bit more work but since the format is prescribed, it should only require a minute or two longer. To send a properly worded response, use the language of the invitation in your note. For example:
Mr. and Mrs. William Huger Smith
accept with pleasure
(or regret that they are unable to accept)
your kind invitation
Saturday, the seventh of December
Two Thousand and Nineteen
at half past six o’clock in the evening
With this formal response, be sure the lines are centered, thus giving an hourglass shape to the text, similar to the invitation. And be sure to use black gel ink or a fountain pen, just not a ballpoint. If you know the hosts well, it is perfectly acceptable to send a more personal note, particularly if you are regretting and want the hosts to understand the importance of your reason. Ecru stationery is preferred, but as etiquette evolves white will also work.
Of course, some etiquette rules will never evolve and with good reason. One is bringing an uninvited guest. Simply stated, if the invitation is addressed to only you, you should attend as a single. Unless specifically invited, that includes children as well. The only exception to the rule is if the host is not aware that you are engaged or married. In this case, tradition states that you may ask the bride if you may bring your fiance or spouse.
The Hostess Gift
Wine and food are always appreciated, but unless you’ve been asked to bring either, don’t expect them to be consumed at the event. (Tip: bring white wine, rosé, or Champagne at room temperature. Arriving with them chilled implies you’re expecting them to be opened.) Other thoughtful gifts include cocktail napkins, scented soap, hand cleanser or lotion, a pretty plate or serving dish, a candle, or some type of gourmet food item, such as candied nuts. It’s every host’s nightmare: a well-meaning guest arrives with a gift — wrapped flowers without a vase or an appetizer with no serving implements — that requires the host’s immediate attention. Instead of placing your friend in this uncomfortable position, think ahead. Flowers are always a lovely gesture, but do bring yours in a vase or send them the day before so your host has time to find a place for them.
Be sure to include an enclosure card for your gift — your host probably won’t have time to open your present right away. If you have been asked to contribute to the party, arrive armed with any necessary accoutrements, such as spreaders, crackers, a trivet, and something in or on which to place the dirty dishes at the end of the night so you can easily take them home. Chances are that everything will be cleaned before you leave, but it’s better to be prepared. If your dish will need warming in the oven prior to being served, ask your host ahead of time if this will be a problem.
Anyone who has ever thrown a party knows that those last five minutes prior to the arrival of the first guest are usually spent in a flurry of last-minute activity. Give your host a chance to finish up those final tasks by arriving five to 10 minutes after the appointed time unless it’s a seated dinner party or luncheon, in which case you should be right on time. If the event is a drop-in, you’re free to show up at any point during the time stated on the invitation. Either way, be sure to seek out your host as soon as you arrive.
You have arrived. Now what? As a guest, it’s your responsibility to mingle. Do you see someone sitting alone? Take a moment to say hello. He or she may not know a soul at the party and would appreciate the gesture. If you find yourself amid a sea of unfamiliar faces, smile, say hello, and ask someone nearby how he or she knows the host.
Unless you have a sick child at home, keep your phone out of sight until you need to call Uber or Lyft. This is not the time to text friends or catch up on social media.
How long you need to stay depends on the type of engagement you’re attending. Drop-ins can be quick, but unless you’ve alerted your hosts that you’re on your way to an event with a hard start time, plan on staying at least 30 minutes but no more than an hour or so. Cocktail parties require a longer commitment, at least an hour, and longer if the event is to celebrate a birthday or engagement. Make an effort to speak to the host or hosts and, of course, whoever is being feted.
No matter how badly your friends or a tired spouse may be pulling you toward the door (or an idling Uber), do the right thing and seek out your host to say goodbye. If, after a reasonable search, you’re unable to locate him or her, enlist a trusted friend to share your goodbye and be sure to mention your departure the next day when you call to say thank you.
And speaking of the thank you …
At one time the only proper way to convey thanks for an event was to handwrite a note and drop it in the mail first thing the next day to ensure delivery the day after that. (Tip: address and stamp the envelope the day before so that all you need to do the next morning is slip it into the mailbox). While that remains the gold standard, the rules have definitely relaxed. In general, if your invitation to a party arrived via regular mail, your thank you should be delivered the same way. However, if you had to slip out before you could say goodbye to your host, calling the next day is a better alternative. If you cannot reach him or her, and this includes leaving a voice mail, send a note.
If you received an email invitation, a thank you delivered via email or text is acceptable. A notable outlier is the sit-down dinner, which should always be followed by a written note no matter how you were invited. When writing your note or making your call, try to go beyond the basics of “delicious food and fabulous company” and note something specific, such as a particular menu item or conversation you enjoyed with the host.
Customs and traditions may go in and out of fashion, but manners are always in style. If ever unsure about the proper action to take, remember the age-old principle that manners are fundamentally about showing respect, not knowing all the rules.