A host is like a general: calamities often reveal his genius.
~ Horace, Roman lyric poet, satirist, and critic, 65 – 8 B.C.
Now that autumn has arrived and the busy fall entertaining season begins, I’m returning to topics of dining etiquette. As a student, your future very likely will include formal entertaining and hosting for both personal and business occasions. As Horace observed millennia ago, planning and implementing a dinner or luncheon party can be fraught with opportunities for mishaps, often referred to as Murphy’s Law.
So whether making arrangements for a formal catered black tie affair, dinner dance, backyard barbecue or Friday night pizza party, not only should a host be thorough in his or her planning, but also be able to respond swiftly to fix any problems that occur from the moment that the idea for the party crosses one’s mind until the last guest departs.
And, despite the level of formality or informality of a dinner party, as the host, you are responsible to oversee a get-together in which all of your guests are treated respectfully and ensured a good time. This will not only provide a pleasant experience for your guests, but enhance your reputation and brand as someone who knows how to entertain properly and successfully.
Following are seven guidelines that hosts should observe:
- Prepare the Guest List: From the most formal affair to the most casual get-together, the guest list is the key element of your gathering. Hosting any kind of party is a great way to provide an opportunity for friends to enjoy each other’s company or celebrate an occasion, to introduce new people into the group or to connect certain people in particular, raise funds for a charity or as a thank-you for someone’s efforts or generosity. Select guests who you think will get along, whether or not you know them well or they know each other. Strike a balance between your comfort zone and expanding your social network.
- Issue Clear and Precise Invitations: Whether you’re mailing printed invitations to a formal affair six weeks in advance or inviting people to a casual pizza party the next evening, be clear about who is invited. For example, make it clear in your invitation if you are including children and plus ones to the wedding or if it’s okay to bring a friend to your Sunday cookout. While there are formats for printed invitations, casual invitations issued via email, text, phone or word of mouth frequently omit essential information. Therefore, be sure to include the date and check that it is correct. Specify a time, and if it makes sense include an end time to avoid misunderstandings. Include directions to your house, campus, dorm or wherever you are hosting. Be sure to advise if there is a particular dress code (jacket & tie, jeans are okay, no shorts or flip flops, etc.). Include an RSVP request so you will have an accurate account of attendees.
- Secure the Appropriate Space: Depending on the occasion and number of guests, determine if you can entertain at home, rent space or hold the dinner party at a restaurant. Decide if there is enough room in your home to accommodate a birthday party or should you hold it outdoors in your yard or at a local park. Does the space need equipment to play music or watch TV or movies? Whatever space you decide on, be sure that your guests will be physically comfortable. If you’re in high school or a college student who is home for break, remember to respect your parents and get their okay before you have a crowd over.
- Select the Menu: Whether you’re serving filet mignon or hot dogs, champagne or soft drinks and beer, plan the menu carefully. Make sure your meal is balanced, with protein, vegetables and starch, beverages and dessert, and that there is enough for everyone. It’s better to have leftovers than to run short. Allow for any food allergies and preferences of your guests and, if necessary, provide alternate food selections.
- Assemble the Accouterments: Arrange for any equipment and accessories you will need for your bash. For formal dinner parties that could mean flowers, centerpieces, linens, crystal, china, flatware, orchestra and the like. For less formal entertaining, that might mean a place to set up a bar or buffet table and the appropriate glasses, tableware, flatware, linens, etc. For casual entertaining at home that might include CDs and / or DVDs, a table for food and drinks, paper goods and plastic-ware, enough seating for everyone, space to dance or play games, for a few examples.
- Greet Your Guests & Make Introductions: You should personally greet each guest no matter how large or small, formal or informal your party. At a formal dinner you might have a hired staff to answer the door, take coats and direct guests to the cocktail area or dining room; but you should greet them yourself shortly after they have arrived. At receptions or during the cocktail hour, the hosts should circulate and mingle with their guests as a way of greeting everyone, as well as introducing guests to each other. But, whether you and your guests are wearing tuxedos and gowns or cutoffs, you should personally greet all guests as they arrive, or soon after. You should also make any necessary introductions as soon as possible. All guests, whether old friends or new acquaintances, should be made to feel welcome, included and comfortable both physically and emotionally. You can do this in a relaxed way without a lot of fuss; but you must do it.
- Wind Down and Clean Up: Sometimes it’s a challenge to end a party, but at some point you’ll have to start herding your guests to the door. At formal dinners this is less of a problem because they are usually structured and everyone is acutely aware of protocol. But, even then the host might have to make some pointed references to the time and indicate that the party’s over. In less formal settings it might be even more challenging. But, if you’re entertaining at home or in your campus residence or renting a space, it’s necessary to adhere to a timeframe or face disciplinary or financial consequences. When the party is over, be sure to clean up and leave the space in the same or better condition than you found it. And, don’t let anyone who has been drinking alcoholic beverages get behind the wheel of a car; either have a guest who is sober drive him home or call a taxi. Don’t ever hesitate to relieve someone who is not sober of her car keys. It’s always proper protocol to err on the side of caution when it comes to a guest’s health and safety.
Join me next week when I’ll address the responsibilities of the dinner guest!
Until next time,