16 Holiday-Party Etiquette Mistakes You’re Probably Making—and How to Avoid Them
Sure, you know the big missteps to avoid at the annual Christmas bash. But what about these subtle holiday-party etiquette mistakes?
Don’t be that guest
‘Tis the season for holiday parties! Whether you’re attending a friend’s bash, a company event or your family’s annual cookie exchange, these parties are a ton of fun … and also littered with landmines. You have to consider what to wear, what to eat, who to talk to (and what to talk about), what gifts to bring and all the other little details of holiday-party etiquette.
And yes, holiday-party etiquette is a little different than regular party etiquette, for both guests and hosts. “Plus, since this may be one of the few times you see some of these people for the year, it’s worth the extra effort to make a good impression,” says veteran event planner Keith Willard. “There are some subtle things you may be doing that you may not even realize are a problem, and these can affect how people perceive you.”
To help you navigate these nuances, we asked Willard and a few well-known etiquette experts to share the tips you need to make this your best holiday season yet—and ensure you’re not the most-talked-about guest for all the wrong reasons.
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Bringing a gift that requires work
If your host went to the effort of arranging a holiday party, it’s polite to bring a small token of gratitude. You can offer to bring something to help with the party (ask beforehand what they might need), or buy a hostess gift under $20. The key, according to etiquette expert Bonnie Tsai, is to bring something that won’t create more work for your host—especially not at the critical time when they are trying to welcome all their guests. For example, cut flowers in a basket or vase are a lovely gift, but cut flowers in plastic will require the host to find a vase, fill it with water, cut the stems and arrange the flowers. It’s not a huge deal, but if you can avoid causing the host a little extra work, why not?
One thing our experts always recommend avoiding? Demanding that your host open your gift right then and there. Unless you were asked to prepare a dish for the meal, you shouldn’t bring food or drinks that you expect to be served immediately. This is also not the time to ask the host to open a box or gift bag so you can watch them appreciate what you picked out for them. Generally, they will put gifts to the side and open them at a more convenient time.
Do this instead: Bring a gift that the host can enjoy later. “Do a little research, and choose a gift that is related to their passions or hobbies,” Tsai says. “Skip bringing alcohol unless you already know they enjoy it.”
Ignoring the dress code
Think back to the last holiday party you went to and what people wore. Chances are, anyone that sticks out in your memory is likely due to the fact that they were inappropriately dressed. This could mean anything from showing up to a formal event in shorts and flip-flops or to an office party in revealing club wear. “You want to be remembered—but not for this reason,” says Valerie Sokolosky, author of the comprehensive etiquette guide Do It Right. This is also true of holiday parties that have a fun dress code as part of the theme, like wearing all white for a “winter white” party or donning an ugly sweater.
Do this instead: If the host lists a dress code, follow it. And make sure you understand the difference between business casual, cocktail, semi-formal, formal and black tie. FYI, it’s better to be slightly overdressed than underdressed, so if you’re unsure, go with a nice pair of slacks and a button-down shirt or sweater, Sokolosky says. This outfit works regardless of gender, but for women, you also can’t go wrong with a little black dress. Accessories, like a nice watch, jacket or jewelry, can upgrade a basic outfit to a party outfit. (For both genders, avoid wrinkly items, clothing made from cheap-looking fabrics and anything that is too revealing for the occasion.)
Asking the host to cater to your dietary needs
Many people are on specialized diets—some by choice and others due to allergies or health conditions—but if you fit into this category, the responsibility is on you to make sure you have something to eat, Sokolosky says. Thoughtful hosts often ask in advance about allergies or other needs (or they may already know about your dietary concerns), but unless they offer, don’t ask for special accommodations. The one exception is if you have a life-threatening allergy; in that case, you should alert the host well in advance to ensure your safety.
Do this instead: If it’s a potluck, offer to bring a dish you know you can eat, Sokolosky says. Otherwise, eat what works for you and skip what doesn’t—no commentary about your keto or vegan diet necessary. If you’re concerned about not having enough food options, have a snack or meal beforehand. And under no circumstances should you comment about what other people are or are not eating or how limited the menu is.
Dishing up food in unhygienic ways
Many holiday parties involve buffets or spreads of cocktail snacks so you can eat while mingling, but this convenience can lead to some holiday-party etiquette offenses. Double-dipping, using your fingers to pick up food (even something you might consider a finger food), sniffing an item to decide if you want to try it, using a serving spoon for one dish to serve a different one, licking a serving utensil for a taste—these things have never been polite, but since the pandemic, they have become even bigger etiquette offenses because they can spread illness. “You don’t want to be the one spreading germs at the holiday party,” Willard says frankly.
Do this instead: Remember that you’re not eating at your home, so you should be extra mindful of contaminating food that others will eat. Use the serving utensils provided, and if you want to taste something, add a small portion to your plate.
Taking and posting pictures of others without their permission
Among the highlights of many holiday parties are group pictures that provide happy memories year-round. However, not everyone is comfortable with their pictures (or pictures of their children) being taken or shared online. “Recently at an event I was in charge of, someone was pulled into a picture without being asked, and the reaction was swift and very testy, causing a momentary break in the party,” Willard recounts. Maybe the person didn’t like the way they looked, didn’t tell someone close to them that they were attending the event or were engaging in work-inappropriate activity they didn’t want on social media. Or maybe they just highly value their privacy. “The fact is that their reason isn’t your business,” Willard says, “and it is not for you to make that decision for them.”
Do this instead: “Always ask permission when taking photos of other people, and ask permission again before posting them on social media,” Willard says. Remember: It takes only one out-of-context snap shared on social media to ruin a professional reputation. Even if you’re posting it in a well-meaning way, a person may still experience negative consequences from it.
Not following the theme
Is the gathering a white elephant party? Christmas karaoke? A cookie swap? There are many themes for holiday parties, and if your host has chosen one, it’s polite to go along with the fun. “Sitting out and not participating is rude to the host and may make other guests uncomfortable,” says Sokolosky. You don’t have to do anything you really don’t want to do, of course, but make an effort to stay on theme and engaged in the activities.
Do this instead: “Play along, even if you think it’s a little silly,” Sokolosky says. “These traditions are part of what makes the holidays fun!” If you really can’t bring yourself to don the ugly sweater or have a good attitude about it, then consider sending your regrets and not attending. “Don’t be the person complaining about things other people are enjoying,” she adds.
Helping out a little too much
“Being helpful to the host is great, but be careful you’re not taking ownership of the event when attending someone else’s party,” Willard says. “I am guilty of this myself sometimes!”
When it comes to holiday-party etiquette, there’s a fine line between being helpful and overstepping, he notes. For instance, offering to help with the dishes is kind, but simply taking over and cleaning may not be what the host needs or wants. Similarly, things like going into the kitchen to bring out food if you see the buffet running low, cutting and serving dessert before it’s time and answering other guests’ questions may step on someone else’s toes. After all, a good host will take care of those things. “You may be accidentally causing more work for the host,” Willard explains, “or it could be that they don’t want it to appear as if they need help or that they are not doing enough.”
Do this instead: Usually, a host will be happy to have some additional help, but the polite thing to do is to ask first and accept whatever they say. “If someone says, ‘Please don’t clean up—we’ve got it,’ let that be the end of it, and enjoy the night,” Willard advises.
Not reading the room when telling jokes
What brand of humor is appropriate depends entirely on the group, the venue, the type of holiday party and how well the guests know one another. This is why it’s important to read the room before telling any joke that might be considered edgy. “You don’t know other people’s level of comfort or their personal tastes,” Tsai says. “If you’re unsure how a joke will land, it’s better to skip it than risk offending someone.”
Do this instead: Avoid hot-button topics like religion, politics and sex, even in a joking way. “Keep it lighthearted and happy,” Tsai says. “And remember, humor should never be at the expense of someone else.”
Gossiping at the office holiday party
Generally speaking, work parties are for having fun and networking. And while many of these people are your friends, you need to remember that they’re your work friends. That line often gets blurred, but the biggest rule here is that holiday parties aren’t for gossiping, whether that’s about the latest suspected office romance or who’s competing for the big promotion. You don’t know who’s listening, and something you say could get you in hot water come Monday morning. “Don’t say anything about another co-worker that you wouldn’t say in front of them,” Sokolosky says.
Beyond that, people don’t want to work at a party. “Anything that makes people work off the clock, even just asking for a project update or asking a quick question, should be avoided,” she adds.
Do this instead: Focus on getting to know your co-workers as people. Ask them about their interests (while steering clear of these polite questions that are actually rude), or if the party has activities, play a fun game together. Lots of bonding can happen over a dart board, pool table or white elephant exchange—and the things you do off-hours at the party reflect on you as an employee and co-worker the other 364 days of the year, for better or worse.
Blocking in another car when parking
Holiday parties often mean lots of guests, and if they’re being hosted at someone’s home, you might encounter a tricky parking situation. But don’t just park wherever you can with the intention of dealing with it later. Common parking blunders—such as blocking in another guest, double parking, blocking the neighbor’s driveway or parking somewhere you shouldn’t—are frustrating to other guests, and they can even lead to heated conflicts or fines. “I’ve seen it too many times,” Willard says. “Parking problems can make a great night turn sour quickly and end the party on a bad note.” In some cases, like parking on a blind corner, they can even make things incredibly dangerous.
Do this instead: Be considerate when parking, and follow the rules. “Lots of holiday parties happen in people’s homes, and many neighborhoods have specific rules regarding parking,” says Willard. “If you’re unsure where to park, call the host in advance and ask.” You might also want to consider carpooling with other guests or taking an Uber to circumvent potential problems.
Showing up with extra guests
Want to bring your new girlfriend, your sister visiting from out of town or your young children after the sitter canceled at the last minute? Unless you have explicit permission from the host, don’t do it, Tsai says. Hosts often put a great deal of thought, money, time and preparation into their holiday parties, and much of that depends on a specific number of guests attending. Surprising someone with an extra guest is a big no-no, as is bringing children to an adults-only party.
Do this instead: Show up only with the people specifically listed on the invite, says Tsai. “If the invitation specifies a plus one or guest, then feel free to bring one,” she adds. “And don’t forget to let the host know who is coming when you RSVP.” If you have an extenuating circumstance, you can call ahead and ask the host if you can bring the extra person, but be prepared to accept their no. And if you have to say no in return, here’s how to turn down an invitation politely.
Answering your phone in the middle of the party
A phone rings in the middle of the party, and before you know it, the person next to you is loudly discussing their doctor’s appointment or fighting with their ex. “We have all seen and heard people do this at a party, and it can be so frustrating,” Willard says. “It is rude to take a call in the middle of a party where other people are talking.” And don’t even think about doing a video call or using speakerphone unless you have a specific and approved reason—like Grandma wanting to say hi to the rest of the family at the dinner she couldn’t make it to.
Do this instead: Be present with the people you are with. If you really need to take a call, excuse yourself and go somewhere more private, like outside, Willard says. That way, you can deal with what you need to while still following proper holiday-party etiquette.
Offering helpful “suggestions”
Of course you know not to bash the host or gossip about others at the party, but some guests will offer critiques they think are helpful but actually come across as rude, Willard says. Saying things like, “Let’s get this party started—you all are too quiet,” “We need a more upbeat playlist to get people in the groove” or “The caterer last year was better” aren’t helpful; they’re hurtful.
Do this instead: Be gracious, and keep your suggestions to yourself. “You accepted the invitation, and with that acceptance comes a certain amount of responsibility on your part—including not putting your idea of a good party on someone else,” Willard says.
Disappearing without saying goodbye
Whether the party has a specified start time or it’s a drop-in affair, the polite thing to do upon arrival is to greet the host. Similarly, it’s polite to thank the host and say goodbye when you’re ready to leave. However, saying goodbyes can get tricky. You may have a packed schedule with multiple events, you may be there under a sense of obligation, you may need to attend to a situation at home or perhaps it’s simply getting late. These are all understandable reasons for ducking out early, but you should still make an effort to find the host and say goodbye. It can be tempting to leave quietly—or do an “Irish exit“—when no one is looking. It’s faster and simpler (especially if the host is busy talking to other guests) and you don’t have to hear “Leaving already?” … but this type of party ghosting is rude and unnecessary, Willard says. At best, it can come across as cold or ungrateful. At worst, it can hurt the host’s feelings or make others worry about what happened to you.
Do this instead: If you’re going to attend a holiday party, commit to show up for at least 30 to 45 minutes, and then excuse yourself politely and honestly. “It’s the holidays, so most people know there are going to be multiple obligations,” Willard explains. “Say your thanks to the host, and slide out. It doesn’t have to be dramatic.” And don’t feel like you must provide a specific reason for leaving when you need to. You can simply say, “This party has been lovely, and I wish I could stay longer! Thank you so much for the invitation and a wonderful evening.”
Overfilling your plate
The food looks great, and there are a lot of people there—you should stock up at the buffet while you can, right? Wrong. “Don’t pile your plate high with food. This can make you look messy or greedy,” Tsai says. “It’s especially rude to take a lot of food when most of the guests haven’t had a chance to eat yet.” A good host will ensure there’s plenty of food to go around, but miscalculations happen, so stick to one serving until you know everyone’s had a chance to eat.
Do this instead: Take one serving of the foods you want to eat, and if you end up wanting more, make a second trip back to the buffet or table. If you’re concerned about being hungry, eat a small snack high in protein and healthy fats about 30 minutes before the party. (Think: a slice of lunch meat with cheese or a handful of nuts.)
Staying in the bathroom and watching YouTube videos
Whether it’s having to talk to judgmental relatives, your spouse’s boring co-workers or second cousins you see only at Christmas, holiday parties often have some forced socializing—which can be frustrating and exhausting. (If you have to listen to Aunt Brenda’s weight-loss tips one more time …) Excusing yourself to head to the bathroom is a common escape tactic, but it can cause big problems, especially if you’re at a venue or home where bathrooms are limited. “Bathroom etiquette is a thing, and we don’t talk about it nearly enough,” Willard says. Monopolizing the bathroom for long periods of time, or scrolling through your phone while you’re in there, is a party faux pas. Period.
Do this instead: “Even if the party is in a home, it’s not your home, so you shouldn’t use their bathroom like it’s your own,” he says. “Do your business, and that’s it. Then do your best to leave it in good condition for the next person.” If you really need a break from socializing and you can’t leave yet, step outside to admire the holiday decorations for a minute.
About the experts
- Keith Willard is the owner of Keith Willard Events, an event-planning company based in south Florida. Keith has spent a lifetime working in the events industry, including being the past Director of Catering for Ritz-Carlton Bal Harbour and planning events that included Mark Cuban’s 40th birthday.
- Bonnie Tsai is the founder and director of Beyond Etiquette. An expert in multicultural etiquette, she has been formally trained in Continental European, British, American and Chinese etiquette.
- Valerie Sokolosky is an etiquette expert, executive coach and author of eight etiquette books, including Do It Right, a comprehensive etiquette guide. She is one of only 20 master brand strategists worldwide and has served on various executive boards, including the prestigious Leadership America.