Richmond Proper: On Being a Good Guest

“The good guest is almost invisible, enjoying him or herself, communing with fellow guests, and, most of all, enjoying the generous hospitality of the hosts.” — Emily Post

“There seems to be an impression now that an invitation to dinner is merely the opening suggestion in a bargaining session, to be continued until a compromise about the evening is achieved. Those honored with invitations feel free to negotiate the time, dress, and menu, and often to wangle an additional invitation for someone who is a stranger to the host. All of this is rude. If an invitation cannot be accepted as offered, it must be refused. The host may then amend it if he wishes.”
— Judith Martin

“The good guest is almost invisible, enjoying him or herself, communing with fellow guests, and, most of all, enjoying the generous hospitality of the hosts.”
— Emily Post

It’s tempting to think of the guest to host relationship as being one-sided: hosts do all the work, and then we as guests just show up. But socializing should be a two-sided activity where hosts see to our comfort and we respond with our company and respect. Punishing a host for his good intentions with bad behavior seems like an unnatural response, and yet so many hosts come away from events feeling used or having to deal with awkward situations. I like to think that this is the result of carelessness rather than cruelty, so assuming we all desire not to ruin the lives of our hosts, let’s set forth a few basic rules for being good guests.

Let’s also note that there are many different types of guest situations where more specific discussion should take place, but for now we’ll just address general considerations for parties or dinners. Once we’ve graduated from this topic, we can talk particularly about weddings, restaurants, overnight stays, and the like.

1. Don’t ask who else is coming.

This implies that your invitation is not enticing unless certain notable people will be present. If you need assurance that you will rub elbows with the brightest local stars and you couldn’t have a good time just sitting and talking one-on-one with the hostess, perhaps you ought not to accept her invitation at all.

“It means ‘Will this be worth my while?’ and is rude. A proper answer is a sweet ‘Why, you’re the first person I thought of.'”
— Judith Martin

2. Never bring an uninvited guest.

Even if you can’t fathom why it would matter, don’t do it. The offense you’re committing is the gesture of taking liberties with an event you didn’t plan. Naturally hosts need an accurate head count to provide for their guests, whether it be a matter of an elaborate meal or just space considerations.

For this one, I have to throw in a few disclaimers. If your host went around handing out flyers on the street or tacking them to telephone poles, that means you can bring whatever uninvited guests you want. Clearly they are intent on garnering a huge number of attendees, and you must help them if you can. If you receive an invitation that says bringing additional guests is fine, go for it. If your invitation does not specify whether you can bring your own guests, go by this rule: For a formal event such as a wedding or bar-mitzvah, do not bring guests. For an informal event such as a birthday party or a cookout, ask the host first.

“It seems that many people today have forgotten that invitations are issued only to the people whose names are on the envelope. The Emily Post Institute has had a deluge of letters lately from dismayed hosts and hostesses who have had to cope with uninvited guests. In some cases it’s just a question of annoyance or social embarrassment; in others it’s a matter of considerable additional expense.”
From the article “Rudeness Alert!” on

“Do not bring a friend along without first asking the hostess. If she says you may, introduce whoever it is to the host and hostess when you arrive.”
— Nancy Tuckerman and Nancy Duncan, The Complete Amy Vanderbilt Book of Etiquette

3. Don’t make demands.

Note that your hostess is trying to please the majority of her guests rather than only you. Just because you’re on an all-mushroom diet this week doesn’t mean that all the guests should only have mushrooms for dinner. If you have special needs (note the difference between needs and wants) such as those related to medical conditions, let the hostess know ahead of time and she will find a way to accommodate you. For example, it would be good for her to know that you’ll swell up rather nastily if placed in the same room as a peanut. Don’t insist on seeing the new wallpaper in the hostess’s bedroom — her bedroom may be in a state of disarray that she is unwilling to show off.

“[Miss Manners] is constantly being importuned by people who wish to notify the hosts of their menu requirements — diet restrictions, idealistic objections, or simple preferences — in order to enjoy themselves more fully. To them she must reply that eating is only an incidental part of a dinner party and that it is not fair to expect hosts to provide custom meals for a variety of guests; that one eats what one can, perhaps fortifying oneself against starvation beforehand.”
— Judith Martin

4. Control yourself.

Why does this even need to be said? How you act in your own home is your own business, and how you act in the homes of others is the business of everyone watching. However charming you think your loud outbursts and wild behavior are, no matter how adept you have become at crushing beer cans on your forehead, distracting other guests from interesting conversations is not a good thing. Being very close with the host is not your ticket to letting it all hang out, either. If you moved to China and entered the house of a coworker you just met, you would take your shoes off and then follow the host’s lead on any matters you were unsure of. How much more courtesy should you pay to good friends who have invited you over?

“You don’t want to be that guest that gets escorted out because you drank too much. Limit the amount you drink.”‘s Kathleen Murray as quoted in Lauren Kurz’ article for Play

5. Leave your troubles at the door.

I know it’s hard, I really do. Venting is cathartic, and it’s hard to resist when a whole sympathetic room stands listening to your story. Your friends do want you to be yourself and they do want to know what’s really going on in your life, but they don’t want to know that your gout is flaring up worse this week than last, that such-and-such political party is driving this world straight to hell, or that you’re still feeling the oh-so-tragic effects of the breakup that happened two years ago. These fascinating topics may be better suited for an intimate conversation with a like-minded friend or two.

“The ideal guest not only tries to wear becoming clothes, but tries to get into an equally becoming frame of mind. No one is ever asked out very much if she is in the habit of telling people all the misfortunes and ailments she has experienced or witnessed, though the perfect guest listens with apparent sympathy.”
— Emily Post

6. No pets, please.

Unless your host has made it clear that this would be the perfect time for a doggie play-date, you can manage to tear yourself away from dear Muffin for a little while. Other guests may be reluctant to become caked in dog slobber, deathly allergic to the kitten in your pocket, or harboring a secret phobia of iguanas. Even if everyone at the event adores the animal you have brought, it makes it hard to socialize when you’re constantly getting up to wrangle, discipline, or otherwise tend to said pet.

“Perhaps the greatest damage that most of us are ever asked to bear is that caused by a lap dog which is taken everywhere and allowed to run free.”
— Emily Post

7. Be on time.

Events should not be held up on your account, whether it’s a formal picnic in the English countryside or a poker game with the boys. Significant lateness sends the message “Oh they can wait for me, they’re unimportant and have nothing better to do.” Do you really feel that way about the other guests? Some make the argument that in other cultures timeliness is all relative and it’s not uncommon to wait hours for other people. Guess what: we’re not in another culture, we’re in this culture. It’s one primarily descended from English customs, and I doubt Mary Poppins would approve of your excuses. Be careful not to arrive too early, though — your hostess is probably busy with last-minute preparations and will find it difficult to entertain you as well.

“Another attribute of the perfect guest is never to keep people waiting.”
— Emily Post

“It is better to arrive a few minutes after the hour than before. Eight minutes past the appointed hour is ideal. Twelve will also do.”
— Judith Martin

8. Participate.

All hosts expect that some guests will be more like shrinking violets than master storytellers. But if you’re truly paralyzed with fear about even speaking to other human beings, perhaps you would feel more comfortable at home amongst your books, records, and various figurines. Alone time is awesome, but alone time cannot happen during party time. This does not mean, of course, that you should join in the fun of taking body shots if it’s not your cup of tea.

“Don’t be standoffish. Make an effort to introduce yourself to guests you don’t already know. If you’re talking in a group and someone close by is standing alone, ask that person to join you.”
— Nancy Tuckerman and Nancy Duncan, The Complete Amy Vanderbilt Book of Etiquette

“Shyness is nice, and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to.”
— Morrissey

9. Respect the property of your host or hostess.

Your hostess has made certain items available to you for a good reason, so if there are plastic cups out, don’t go looking for glass tumblers. Violated is the hostess that walks into her kitchen to see guests rummaging around in her cabinets, or surveys her bedroom after the party and finds her bookshelves disheveled and a cigarette butt on her windowsill. If you need something, ask your hostess for it! Also, a good rule of thumb is to focus on leaving the premises in the same manner in which you found them. Dancing on a table or micturating on rose bushes does not convey an attitude of goodwill to the person who has invited you over.

“At a high school reunion party, while guests were viewing slides of past glories, we heard a loud crash from the bathroom. A young lady emerged, red-faced. The hostess then announced that she had booby-trapped the medicine cabinet by placing several hundred marbles inside in case any of her guests decided to snoop.”
— From a letter to Judith Martin

10. Offer to help clean up, but don’t insist.

On some occasions a host will be glad to accept assistance, and on others he may want to provide the courtesy of cleaning up on his own.

“If you notice your hostess is busy, ask if she’d like to help removing the dirty plates.”
— Nancy Tuckerman and Nancy Duncan, The Complete Amy Vanderbilt Book of Etiquette

“Listen to the hosts. If they say they’d rather you not help serve or clean up instead of helping to serve or clean up, take them at their word.”
— Newsday’s Beth Sherman in the article “How to Be a Party-Perfect Guest”

11. Reciprocate.

Are you always a guest and never a host? If your current living situation makes it impossible for you to entertain adequately, this is understandable. Otherwise, accepting the invitations of others and never tendering your own makes it seem like you don’t enjoy their company, but feel obligated to attend their events for some reason.

“It is true that a return invitation should, when possible, be paid for every first invitation.”
— Emily Post

12. When it’s time to go, go.

Don’t always be the first to leave parties for fear of overstaying your welcome — your hostess wants you to stay a while and have a good time. But if your hostess is wearily putting away the last of the leftovers, slowly wiping down tables, or excusing herself to get into her pajamas, you should have gone an hour ago. And after you say you need to go, get up, say goodbye, and leave. You are not required to stand in the doorway for another half-hour talking to the hostess just to assure her that you enjoyed her event.

“Don’t overstay your welcome; if an ending time was given on the invitation, leave shortly after the time indicated.”
— Nancy Tuckerman and Nancy Duncan, The Complete Amy Vanderbilt Book of Etiquette

“Always say goodbye to your host and hostess, thanking them for including you.”
— Nancy Tuckerman and Nancy Duncan, The Complete Amy Vanderbilt Book of Etiquette

Now that we’re equipped with the rules of being good guests, rudeness can’t touch us! And don’t worry, hosts and hostesses, we’re coming for you next week.

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Tess Shebaylo

Tess Shebaylo is a freelance writer, crafter, history geek, and compulsive organizer. She works at Tumblr and lives in Church Hill with her daughter, Morella.

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