Dining Etiquette Series – Responsibilities of a Guest



Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go, and still have the feeling that you wanted to stay?” ~ Banjo, from The Man Who Came to Dinner

Banjo is a character from the classic play about an insufferable guest named Sheridan Whiteside, who reluctantly accepts a dinner invitation and then because of a freak accident not only overstays his visit but behaves badly the entire time. So, to entertain Banjo’s question, perhaps there have been times when, as a guest, you’ve been ambivalent about whether you wanted to stay or go. However, as you know that the foundation of good manners is to put others ahead of yourself, I’m betting that you did not behave as Sherry Whiteside did. Because whether at a formal affair or a beach party, a guest has certain responsibilities that mirror those of the host (see last week’s post, Responsibilities of a Host), as follows:

  1. Respond promptly to an invitation: When you receive an invitation, from engraved or printed to a text message or word of mouth, you are expected to respond by the requested date. Refer to my previous entry, The Pleasure of Your Company is Requested for guidance on formal invitations. Less formal invitations are issued closer to the party dates. When no RSVP is requested, technically you are not required to reply; however, I recommend replying anyway to ensure that there is no misunderstanding. Depending on the date of the party, either reply immediately, at least a few days before or within three days of receiving the invitation. If the invitation is not clear on some points, be sure to clarify them with the host as soon as possible; these would include what to wear, if you can bring a guest, may you contribute anything, what time will the party end, etc. Remember that, generally speaking, you are under no obligation to accept an invitation or to explain the reason you must decline. But, once you have accepted you are under an obligation to attend; however, if a legitimate reason should arise that will prevent you from attending, notify your host immediately.  
  2. Dress appropriately: Follow the dress guidelines on formal invitations; again, refer to my entry on this topic. Whether the invitation is formal or casual, however, if there is any question at all about the dress code, check with the host or sponsor of the party regardless of how formal, casual or special the occasion. This also applies to Halloween and New Year’s Eve parties, some of which are intended to be costume parties or masked balls! In any case, boys and men should never wear baggy or ill-fitting pants and girls and women wear never wear revealing clothing. It is possible to dress stylishly and tastefully at the same time; and, doing so will bolster your image and reputation – together known as your “brand.”
  3. Send or bring a “hostess” gift: For dinner parties held at private homes, a guest is expected to send beforehand or bring to the party a gift for the host or hostess. See next week’s post for more details on hostess gifts.
  4. Arrive promptly, but not too early: Attending a formal dinner party at a private home is one time when you should never arrive early, and may even arrive a few minutes late; in fact, it’s preferable to arrive about 10 minutes past the stated arrival time. The same would be true of an informal or casual party; although, if the host is a good friend it’s always nice to ask if there is anything you can do to help set up or if there is anything you can bring.   
  5. Introduce yourself and others: Upon your arrival and throughout the party, mix and mingle with other guests, and don’t hesitate to introduce yourself if the host is not available to do so. If necessary, make other introductions as well. Whatever you do, don’t be a self-appointed wallflower or park yourself for the night with a group that you already know. A primary reason for parties is to provide a venue to meet new people and expand your circle of acquaintances. Some examples of this are college socials, bridal showers, rehearsal dinners, housewarmings, and the like; they are opportunities to meet other students, future in-laws, other friends and relatives of the bride and groom, and introduce old friends and new to each other.  
  6. Be helpful: Being helpful can range from simply being gracious to the host and hostess and other guests and not disrupting the organization of the party or making last-minute or awkward requests, to proactively being helpful in introducing people, giving up your chair, taking someone’s coat or helping to pour drinks. Asking the host if there is anything you can do to help is always in good form. But, don’t be a pest or take over hosting duties. Just make the host aware that you are glad to help with anything, and then follow through if you’re asked. Don’t drink if you’re underage, and don’t drink too much if you’re of legal age. Be willing to help clean up when the party starts to wind down.
  7. Don’t overstay your welcome: Don’t wait until the hosts start to yawn and look at their watches. If you are at the home of the host’s parents, don’t stay until they kick you out. Unless prior arrangements have been made for a sleepover, head for the door before you start to turn into a pumpkin.

Follow these guidelines and you’ll find yourself on many guest lists!

Until next time,


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