Richmond Proper: On Being a Good Host

“The ideal hostess must have so many perfections of sense and character that were she described in full, no one seemingly but a combination of seer and angel could ever hope to qualify.” — Emily Post

“The ideal hostess must have so many perfections of sense and character that were she described in full, no one seemingly but a combination of seer and angel could ever hope to qualify.”
— Emily Post

Last week’s treatise on being a good guest would be unfinished if we didn’t come back and tackle the concept of being a good host. The relationship of guest and host is a system of give-and-take, and when we consider a few simple rules we can help to eliminate the “me vs. them” feeling of dread that sometimes arises when hosting an event.

1. Don’t take on too much.

When you’re a creative host or hostess (as no doubt all you readers are!), it’s hard to say no to some of the great party ideas you come up with. And theme parties, elaborate menus and impromptu artistic collaborations can be great! Just remember that keeping it simple prevents things from getting out of hand, and it’s better to do one thing well than to do two things poorly. A hundred things can’t fail when there are only ten things that need to go right. Also, don’t invite too many people just because you feel obligated to. This is your event, and every friend can’t be invited to every event. Save them for your next bash!

“Don’t pretend to be other than you are.”
— Emily Post

“Excessive hospitality is the impulse to entertain people who one does not want to entertain or who do not want to be so entertained, or the impulse to entertain people to an extent one does not really want to or they do not really want.”
— Judith Martin

2. Provide as much information as possible to guests ahead of time.

Guests take their cues about when to arrive, what to wear, and what to bring from your invitation or phone call. The less confusing you make things for your guests, the better. They shouldn’t have to figure out for themselves whether there will be food or whether they should bring things to throw on the grill.

“Miss Manners believes it to be the sacred duty of hosts to organize their parties and to guide their guests through them. Guests hate to improvise. A guest who is forced to dig for basic information by asking questions, and then is told for his trouble that ‘It doesn’t matter’ understandably concludes that the whole evening probably won’t matter much.”
— Judith Martin

3. Don’t charge admission.

It’s a fact that party-throwing can get expensive. That’s what potlucks and the phrase “BYOB” are for. Don’t cook up a grandiose scheme and then expect guests to pay a per-head sum just to participate. If you can’t afford to throw the party on your own, don’t throw the party (see item #1).

“The new motivation for charging guests is, Miss Manners keeps hearing from the people who plan these things, to be able to do something ‘really fancy’ that the host could not otherwise afford. The sheer greed of such an idea is sometimes disguised by the claim of doing it to please the guest of honor….The idea that the style of party is more important than allowing hosts to exercise their generosity — and perhaps their ingenuity in finding cheap but pleasant ways to entertain — is horrible.”
— Judith Martin

4. Don’t keep your guests waiting.

If you are serving dinner, serve it at the appointed hour no matter who hasn’t shown up yet. A late guest will expect to have missed some of the food and fun, and shouldn’t be rewarded for being late by garnering special consideration. Don’t spend the first hour of your party fixing and re-fixing your hair in your bedroom, while your guests mill about awkwardly. Your company is what they came for, so bestow it upon them.

“Fifteen minutes is the established length of time that a hostess may wait for a belated guest. To wait more than twenty minutes, at the outside, would be showing lack of consideration to many for the sake of one.”
— Emily Post

5. Make your house rules known.

Since everyone has a different idea of appropriate party behavior, let guests know about any rules you have that are not blatantly obvious. For example, it’s common sense that trash should go in the trash can and that feet should not be placed on the coffee table. But if you have a rule about not bringing food into a certain room, you need to tell your guests about it or post a sign about it in a prominent location.

“Not everyone’s household rules are the same–let them know what yours are right off the bat.”
“How to Be a Good Host” from

6. Keep the conversation civilized.

This is not an issue of censorship, or of being “stuck up.” This is an issue of there being infinite topics to discuss, and you choosing one that doesn’t make people froth at the mouth. It makes sense that people who want to see each other socially should focus on the things they have in common, not the things they can’t stand about each other. This may be hard to do, since it’s not always easy to change the subject. But a well-placed “Anyway, did Bob tell you guys about his exciting trip to South America?” might help to draw attention away from a burgeoning brawl.

“Steer the conversation away from uncomfortable topics. A good religious or political discussion can be stimulating in the context of friends enjoying an evening together, but such topics should be avoided among mere acquaintances who have widely differing opinions. Also, the host should steer the conversation away from overly personal topics or observations and be prepared to jump into the breach if an inadvertent remark causes offense. A good host does not allow one of his guests to be made uncomfortable by another guest. It’s OK if everyone realizes you are changing the subject deliberately. They will be relieved.”
“How to Be a Good Host in the Southern Tradition” from

7. Spend time with each guest.

This is one of the most difficult points to remember, because each of your guests is so enthralling that it’s likely you will be sucked in to the stories of whoever shows up first. As hard as it is to tear yourself away from a good conversation, make an effort to circulate around the party every so often, asking guests how they’re doing and whether you can get them anything. Your attentiveness will put everyone at ease, and you won’t miss an opportunity to make someone enjoy the party a little more.

“Make an effort to connect with every guest. Welcome each guest soon after they arrive and make an introduction to at least one other guest. As the event progresses, make sure to reconnect with each guest for a more extended visit.”
“How to…Be a good host” by Sarah Neish from

8. Ask for help if you need it.

While a party is your chance to do something nice for your friends, it doesn’t mean you have to do every little task on your own. Most guests will enjoy helping you out, so if you need someone to help carry that cooler of refreshments, speak up!

“Seventy-five per cent of respondents in a poll by Time magazine said helping others was a major contributing factor to their happiness. Asking guests for help preparing food or drinks, even if you don’t need it, makes them feel useful and valued. Anyone arriving alone will be especially grateful to have a role.”
“How to…Be a good host” by Sarah Neish from

9. Encourage guests to participate, but don’t force it.

It may be that your shrinking violet of a friend would make several interesting new acquaintances if you introduce her to others and include her in conversations. But if despite your best efforts she prefers to sulk against the wall, graciously leave her alone. Likewise if most of your guests are dancing, don’t go around trying to recruit the remainder of the guests. They are grown-ups and they know where the dance floor is, and they should dance only if they feel the inclination.

“Take much more trouble to be sympathetic and agreeable than when you are a guest. As a guest, it is not your fault that a shy person sits pinched together in a corner. But if you have invited her to your own house, it is your duty to dispel her shyness, either by sitting beside her or by bringing her into the circle in which you are sitting.”
— Emily Post

“Never try to make any two people like each other. If they do, they do; if they don’t, they don’t, and that is all there is to it.”
— Emily Post

10. Save the serious cleaning up for later.

While there’s nothing wrong with putting perishables in the refrigerator or wiping down a surface or two while the party’s still going, you can probably avoid doing all the dishes and mopping the floor until your guests are gone. You only have a limited amount of time with them, so you should enjoy socializing with them while you can. The dirty floor will still be there for you in the morning.

“Heavy-duty cleaning should certainly not be done in front of guests.”
— Judith Martin

11. Relax and have a good time.

If your guests can see that you’re enjoying yourself, they’ll be more likely to have a good time too. If you seem stressed out or disappointed in how the party’s going, your attitude will carry over into how your guests see the party. Do not call attention to anything that goes wrong, whether it be your own fault or someone else’s. If you didn’t stock enough cups, for example, discreetly ask a close friend to run to the store and grab some more. If a guest has become belligerent or violent, take that person aside and ask whether they wouldn’t be more comfortable recovering at home (and offer to call them a cab).

“The best hosts are relaxed and welcoming, not worried about getting things right. ‘Being too perfect or controlling can intimidate guests,’ says Kim Morgan, founder of The Coaching Circle. ‘You want them to feel comfortable, so if someone arrives late, for example, don’t mention it.’”
“How to…Be a good host” by Sarah Neish from

“Those who love to give parties usually give them with ease, which means an unworried attitude of mind. Even if a dozen things go wrong, they know that few of their friends will notice, and fewer still will care, and after all why should things go wrong?”
— Emily Post

12. It’s not over until it’s over.

Although you may have envisioned yourself finished with cleaning and sitting on the couch sipping tea by 10pm, if your guests decide to stay until 2am you must do your best to keep up. No matter how tired you are, do not let the guests see that you are anxious for them to leave. If you become so tired that you can no longer form coherent words, at least show them where the blankets and snack foods are before excusing yourself to bed.

“If you expect your guests to enjoy themselves, don’t make them feel as though they have overstayed their welcome, even if they have.”
“How to Be a Good Host” from

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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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