Rules of Engagement

It may be a party, but it’s not all fun and games. Sure, we’re all a little rusty after three pandemic years. That’s why guests — and hosts! — have rules of etiquette to follow. Plus, check out our essential party checklist below to make your shindig easy and fabulous!

Rules of engagement - YAM Nov/Dec 2023

If you are the guest:  

DO RSVP

Confirm whether or not you will be attending, and do it as soon as possible, no later than two weeks after receiving your invitation and one week before the party. Yes, even if you can’t make it.

DON’T show up empty-handed

Bring something besides yourself to the party — and make it something your host won’t have to fuss with as they are juggling everything else. A bottle of wine, a gift from the kitchen, a potted plant or flowers already in a vase are all ideal gifts. (See opposite page  for more ideas.)

DO follow the dress code

Whether the invite indicates formal, casual or business wear, dress accordingly. If a costume is required, grit your teeth and play along. If you are not sure what to wear, ask your host in advance. If in doubt, always dress up rather than down.

DON’T assume you can bring additional guests

Unless the invite indicates you can bring a plus one, or you have cleared it with your host in advance, don’t. 

DO show up on time (or close to it)

The moments before a party starts can be the most frantic for your hosts, so never, ever arrive early. Likewise, don’t show up really late, especially if there is a sit-down meal involved. Aim to show up just a few minutes after the stated start time. And don’t overstay your welcome — if there is an end time on the invite, plan to leave then; if there isn’t, pay attention to your hosts’ hints.

DON’T overindulge

Yes, we all want to have a good time, but getting schnockered is just messy, especially if it is a work event. Drink in moderation and don’t hog all the finger food either. Also make sure you have a safe way to get home. Don’t put that responsibility on your host.

DO mingle

Meet and chat with as many people as you can — don’t spend the event attached to your host’s hip, don’t spend it lurking in a corner and don’t spend it glued to your phone.

DON’T bring up uncomfortable topics

Rules of engagement - YAM Nov/Dec 2023

Keep the conversation light. Don’t bring up contentious topics like politics, religion and money. And resist the temptation to gossip, especially if it’s about another guest at the party. 

DO offer to help

Offer assistance when you can, but be gracious if your offer is declined.

DON’T forget to thank your host — twice

Thank your host on the way out, and follow up with a thank-you note, either a digital card, text, email or phone call, within a couple of days of the party. For more formal events, a physical note or card would be appropriate. 

If you are the host:

DO write clear invitations

Your invitation should provide all the info your guests need (date, times, location, instructions for RSVP-ing) and be sent in plenty of time to work the event into their calendar. It should also outline any expectations, such as dress codes, themes or activities, and whether the event is potluck or has a cash bar. If you have pets, smokers or specific rules around shoes (and whether you expect guests to remove them), it’s a good idea to explain them as well.  

DON’T invite people who will make others uncomfortable

You want your guests to feel welcome and at ease so, if possible, avoid inviting mortal enemies, contentious exes or hostile business competitors.

DO be ready on time

We know it’s a scramble getting ready for a party, but try not to be in the kitchen chopping veg or in the loo drying your hair when your guests arrive. Be ready to greet them, take their coats and put a drink in their hands right away. (Our checklist on page 57 can help with planning.) 

DON’T apologize

Yes, hosting is a great way to trigger our social anxiety, and yes, something will always go wrong. But guests don’t care about your “messy” house, the broken sauce or the corked Pinot, so stop saying you’re sorry! Instead, be flexible and gracious when the unexpected happens. 

DO accommodate dietary restrictions

Make ALL your guests feel welcome by offering vegetarian, gluten-free and other options to accommodate dietary restrictions. Better yet, ask your guests about allergies and aversions ahead of time, and make sure everyone has something delicious to eat, and enough of it to be satisfied.

DON’T wait too long to serve food

You don’t want your guests to get “hangry” or to drink too much on an empty stomach, so offer something to nibble on right away and pace the food service throughout the event. 

DO offer alternatives to alcohol

Not everyone drinks alcohol and no one needs to tell you why. Offer a good selection of non-alcoholic beverages — luckily, there are plenty to choose from these days, from canned zero-proof cocktails to near beer and even booze-free wines, as well as sodas.

DON’T get drunk Just … don’t.

DO introduce guests to each other

Connect your guests by introducing them to each other with basic background info, things they may have in common or conversation starters like hobbies, TV shows, recent travels or occupations. The easiest icebreaker, of course, is how each is connected to you. 

DON’T ignore your guests

We know there is a lot to do, but don’t spend the evening fussing about in the kitchen. Your guests are there to see you, not your famous croquembouche, so be sure to circulate, chat with everyone, keep your guests’ glasses and plates full and make sure no one feels left out. Also: Stay off your phone, and don’t leave the event without explanation.

DO end the evening gracefully

We’ve all been at that event where the host starts cleaning up while guests are still enjoying dessert. Don’t be that host. It just makes everyone feel unwelcome. Go ahead and set a time limit, but don’t rush your guests out the door while they are still enjoying themselves. If you really want to wrap things up, gently note the time, bring out the coffee and/or offer to call taxis for those who need them.

DON’T asks guests for money after the fact

You might think this is obvious, but apparently not. If you expect guests to pay for food, drinks or gifts, or to make donations for a charitable cause, let them know beforehand, not after they’ve enjoyed your hospitality. It will just leave a bad taste in their mouths.

The Swag’s in the Bag

Truth be told, this was a divisive topic around the YAM offices, as was the subject of host gifts. Some of us think it’s a lovely idea to give your guests a little something to take away when they leave. Others felt it was unnecessary and couldn’t imagine adding it to an already overwhelming to-do list. So really, it’s up to you.

Rules of engagement - YAM Nov/Dec 2023

But if you ARE thinking of offering a little take-home swag, and it’s not a children’s birthday party, consider something from your kitchen — a jar of preserves, perhaps, a bag of homemade candy or a small box of cookies. No one needs more junk for their home, and no one wants to feel embarrassed by an intimidatingly pricey present.

Think of it like mignardises, the sweets your server will bring out alongside the bill at the end of a fancy restaurant meal. It’s a way to keep the happy memories going after the party is over — and get those cookies out of your house.


Planning to host a shindig this holiday season (or any time)?

Well, you’d better get busy because you’ve got a lot to do. Follow this step-by-step plan to make it as easy — and fabulous! — as possible.