When attending holiday parties hosted by friends and loved ones, many of us really want to be “good” guests. It can seem obvious that, in order to really excel at the whole guest thing, we should be eager to help our hosts in the kitchen, with food and drink service, and with post-party cleanup. But anyone who has spent time meticulously planning an end-of-year soiree can tell you that well-meaning “helpers” can sometimes cause more trouble and stress for a host.
So what can you do to really help beleaguered holiday hosts before, during and after the big day? We asked a group of professional event planners and etiquette hosts for their party guest do’s and don’ts, and here’s what they recommend.
Be sure to RSVP in a timely manner.
“Being a good guest begins long before the party begins,” said Lisa Mirza Grotts, a certified etiquette expert. If the invitation (whether it comes in the mail, over email or via text) asks you to RSVP, do so well before the host has to reach out to confirm your attendance.
The invitation phase of the party also serves as a prime opportunity for hosts to clarify the event’s tone and to set expectations for guests. Hosts who don’t want their guests to help out during the party can “hint that all has been taken care of” right on the invitation, according to Laura Windsor, founder of Laura Windsor Etiquette & Protocol Academy in London. Windsor suggests this type of phrasing: “It is a time of celebration. All has been organized from food to helpers, so all you have to do is bring your good selves, be pampered, mix, and enjoy the evening!”
Consider offering help to the host ahead of time.
Asking a host if you can assist on the event date can be overwhelming, but extending that offer while the host is still planning the party and putting the details together may prove more useful.
“If you are someone who loves to help, contact the host in advance and offer your assistance,” said Jodi RR Smith, an etiquette consultant and president of Mannersmith. “This way, the host can assign a task in advance or know [ahead of time] that an extra pair of hands is available as needed.”
Don’t show up early.
The impulse to show up to a holiday party early to lend a hand with setup comes from a kind place, but Windsor warns that this supposedly-selfless act probably won’t be received that way by the host.
“Arriving early to an event in order to help the hosts is inconsiderate,” she said. “No guest should show up early.”
Respect the event’s start time and arrive within 10-15 minutes of the time on the invite. “If the invitation says 7:15 p.m., guests should arrive between 7:25 and 7:30. If you turn up early, the hosts may not yet be dressed or [be trying] to take a 10-minute breather after last-minute preparations,” Windsor advised.
Don’t bring a bouquet of flowers.
Even if your best friend or your mother-in-law or your boss absolutely adores fresh flowers, resist the urge to bring a bouquet along as a host gift. When guests arrive with flowers, the host “has to stop what she is doing to tend to flowers” by tracking down a vase, Windsor reminded us. Instead, a thoughtful gesture would be to “send an arrangement the day after the party.”
It’s fine to offer help during the event, but don’t insist.
You may be wondering: Are we really telling you not to even offer to help out during the holiday party? Honestly, no. An offer of support “is always considered courteous and respectful and will be appreciated even if it’s immediately declined,” said Emily Coyne, a certified wedding and event planner.
That said, it’s important to consider your phrasing and the style of the event. For example, if the party is staffed by professional caterers and servers, asking if you can clear dishes from the table or load the dishwasher may come across as tone-deaf. But Smith says “a wonderful phrase for a guest to use is, ‘What I can do right now to make your life easier?’”
Crucially, Smith follows that up by advising party guests to “listen to the answer.”
Oana Borcoman, a professional event planner, agrees. “Don’t keep pushing it if the gesture is rejected. A true host wants their guests to enjoy themselves and not be working, so the insistence might make your host uncomfortable,”she cautioned.
Go ahead and make the offer, but if the host tells you that they have everything covered and that you should just enjoy the party, take their word for it.
Be aware of the host’s body language.
Some hosts accept help offers from guests because they can’t think of a nice way to decline. But if you as a guest want to be sincerely helpful rather than an extra body taking up kitchen space, “Watch out for the host’s body language,” Window recommends.
Clues that indicate that a host would really prefer that you head back into the living room and grab another drink or join a game of Celebrity may include “giving less eye contact, using slightly more aggressive body language or giving one-word answers.” Windsor also mentions subtle hints like, “They may take up more room by, for example, putting their arms on their waist or keeping their legs apart while standing. Also, watch their facial expressions: they certainly won’t be smiling, they may look a little annoyed, and they might move away from you into another room (basically to get away from you altogether).”
Again, if the host, as Windsor puts it, “insists that you go and enjoy yourself with the other guests and that you are missing out on all the fun,” listen to them.
Mix, mingle and keep the vibes positive.
You’re at the party as a guest and the most useful thing that you can do for your host is fully within a guest’s wheelhouse: make sure that the party stays lively and friendly and fun.
“As a guest, your job is to mingle, mingle, and mingle,” Windsor said. “Talk about interesting topics and steer clear of negative or personal ones. If you see a guest who seems shy, engage them in conversation and make them feel at home.”
When the party is over, don’t linger.
At the end of the evening, you can make one last offer to help the host tidy up the space. But if they refuse, “Don’t linger. Watch out for clues that the hosts wish to end the evening’s merriment, [like] yawning, turning down/off the music, turning up the lights. Many hosts are too polite to tell people it’s time to go, so it’s the guest’s responsibility to leave at an appropriate hour,” Windsor advised.