10 Polite Habits Dinner-Party Hosts Actually Dislike—and What to Do Instead
Dinner-party etiquette can be surprisingly tricky. Here’s how to avoid some common missteps with your host.
The dos and don’ts of dinner-party etiquette
Etiquette rules smooth the fabric of social interactions by letting everyone know what they can expect from others in a situation. But sometimes, a behavior that’s otherwise considered “good etiquette” becomes an inadvertent etiquette mistake in a particular context. And the chances that will happen are magnified when you’re a guest at a dinner party.
“Ah, the joys of hosting a dinner party,” says frequent dinner-party host Dave Conway. So many things can throw you off your game, and they’re often things guided by actual party-etiquette rules. Take arriving on time, for example. “It’s polite to arrive on time,” Conway concedes, “but it can be stressful when the doorbell rings right on the invitation time.”
Your punctuality is just one of the things dinner-party hosts notice about you—and one of the seemingly polite habits they secretly dislike. While you may not technically be doing anything wrong, that doesn’t mean you couldn’t do better next time. Plus, some of these inadvertent missteps are polite habits most people dislike, so you’ll definitely want to read this, regardless of whether you have a dinner party on your calendar anytime soon.
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Insisting on helping out
Many of us were taught from a very young age that it’s polite to help out anytime we can. And it can feel downright awkward to watch your host do a ton of work to feed and entertain you while you just sit there and watch. But the No. 1 pet peeve among frequent dinner-party hosts is guests insisting on helping out—the key word here being insisting.
Stanford University professor Tom Plante, who frequently hosts dinner parties, tells Reader’s Digest that he and his wife appreciate it when a guest offers to help out. But when they say, “Thank you so much, but please, just enjoy yourself,” they really do mean it, because there are some things they’d prefer to do themselves. For the Plantes, these include setting out hors d’oeuvres, bussing plates, opening wine and arranging flowers that came as gifts from other guests. But other hosts may have other things they’d prefer to tackle on their own, for any number of reasons.
Do this instead: Although it is polite to offer to help, confirm that your host wants the help before pitching in. If they don’t, then go ahead and enjoy yourself while knowing you’re still the perfect guest.
Not offering to help
As we just noted, some people prefer to do all the work when they host a party, and you might be worried about overstepping, especially if your offers to help at dinner parties have been turned down in the past. Also, you would never want to insinuate that your host didn’t have it all under control. But while you might be treading lightly so you don’t offend anyone, not asking if they need help can also come across as rude. This holds true even when your host has hired help for the occasion, says Michelle Chuang, who runs the blog When East Meets West.
Do this instead: Always offer to help. This thoughtful gesture will always be appreciated. If your host declines your offer, know that you’ll be helping them most by enjoying yourself as their guest.
Giving fresh-cut flowers
Who doesn’t like fresh flowers? Dinner-party hosts, that’s who! While it’s always a good idea to bring a hostess gift, fresh flowers bring their own set of challenges. As lovely as they are, and as lovely as the thought may be, freshly cut flowers require immediate attention. And, says Plante, “it’s a hassle to drop everything to deal with these flowers.”
Even if the flowers are already in a vase (which etiquette experts say is proper etiquette), the stems will still need trimming. And that’s on top of everything else your dinner host has on their list. As Plante notes, as much as he and his wife appreciate both flowers and the kindness of the gesture, it does create additional work at a time when there’s already a lot of other work to be done.
Do this instead: If you love the idea of giving flowers, go with a plant. Or for another safe bet, opt for a bottle of wine or a spirit. Just keep in mind the guidelines for bottled gifts discussed below.
Cooking a dish for dinner
Food is love, and it’s meant to be shared. So it’s understandable if you’re inclined to turn up to someone’s home with a gift of food. Nor is it wrong to think of doing so as a polite gesture. However, if you arrive with a dish that’s meant to be served then and there, without having discussed it in advance with your host, there’s some potential for awkwardness.
First, when it’s not a potluck-style gathering, your host is likely not expecting any dishes they haven’t carefully planned for. But now, they’ll have to figure out how the dish fits in with their menu, as well as consider the dietary restrictions of other guests. If it doesn’t quite work, that can feel awkward for both you and the host. If it does, that still requires your host to come up with plating and utensils for serving the dish, not to mention potentially cooking it in an already crammed oven. “It messes up the way I want to do things,” says recipe developer Nosheen. “Plus, I feel I stay more organized when I cook and serve everything myself.”
Do this instead: Bring something that’s not intended to be consumed immediately. A food gift like boxed chocolates, for example, is almost always appropriate. If you want to bring a dish for your host to serve, discuss it in advance. A simple email or text will ward off any potential issues. Brush up on your holiday party etiquette rules to enjoy holiday dinners to the fullest.
Bringing more food than necessary
If you and your dinner-party host have agreed that you’re going to bring a dish to be served at that particular dinner party, then you’re already off to a great start if you turn up with that dish in hand. Ideally, you’ll bring enough to feed all the guests. Perhaps, out of generosity, you might even be inclined to bring enough so that the host will have leftovers to enjoy the next day. However, some hosts may not appreciate the gesture.
As registered dietitian and experienced party host Amy Margulies tells Reader’s Digest, if it’s a dinner party for eight and you bring enough for 20, your host is going to have the extra burden of dealing with the inevitable leftovers. Plus, it may seem like you don’t trust them to have enough food to go around.
Do this instead: If you and your host have agreed that you will bring a dish to be served at a particular event, ask your host exactly how much they need of whatever it is you’re bringing. That way, you can plan accordingly, and there can be no misunderstandings or accidental etiquette missteps.
Choosing a dish that requires real-time prep
Let’s say that you and your host have agreed you’ll be bringing guacamole. While guacamole is a crowd-pleaser, freshly made guac is even better, so you might be inclined to bring the raw ingredients to prep and assemble at their place. You might assume your host will appreciate the effort you’ve made, since this means the quality of your contribution will be on par with their dishes. But, the truth is, your host may not be all that pleased.
As Margulies explains, while she appreciates the effort a guest might be making in bringing raw ingredients for real-time assembly, she would rather that any dish a guest brings come pre-assembled. That’s because hosts may feel uncomfortable having anyone else in the kitchen as they’re doing their thing, and they also may feel obligated to clean up after you, even if that’s not what you intended.
Do this instead: Whatever dish you and your host have agreed upon should arrive fully prepped, cooked and situated in a serving dish. If you need it to be heated, make sure to discuss that with your host in advance as well so they can factor it in with the other dishes’ oven needs. If you’ve made a mistake, don’t worry—but do know how to apologize the right way.
Bringing wine for the meal
Presenting a bottle of wine or spirits to your host as a gesture of appreciation is both polite and thoughtful. Problems may arise, however, if you want that bottle to be opened then and there. “It’s fine if you bring me a bottle of wine,” says Vered DeLeeuw, founder of the blog Healthy Recipes. “Just know that I’ve already paired wine with the meal and have opened a few bottles of red wine to let them breathe. I’ll keep your wine for future use, so please don’t ask me if I forgot to open it—and yes, this actually happened a few years ago.”
Not all hosts will be as particular about their wine pairings as DeLeeuw, but many will have planned every detail of their event. So turning up with a bottle of chilled white wine might suggest to your host that you expect the wine will be opened then and there, even if that wasn’t your intention.
Do this instead: Bring your bottled gift gift-wrapped or in a gift bag. That will let your host know that it is meant as a gift, not an additional menu item. You can also bring another type of wine gift.
Not telling your host about your dietary restrictions
If you have food allergies or other dietary restrictions, you’re probably well aware that talking about what gluten does to your tummy doesn’t make for the most artful dinner party conversation starter. If you’re a vegetarian, you might also not want to force them to cater to you. (After all, there’s always a salad or a side dish, right?) Accordingly, you may be under the impression that when invited to a dinner party, the politest course of action is to keep your dietary concerns to yourself and hope there will be something you can eat.
But if you don’t talk to your host about this in advance, it could be awkward for both you (you’ll go hungry) and them (they’ll definitely notice if you’re not eating the food they’ve put on the table and wonder why). Remember: They’ve taken a lot of time to prepare the meal and want you, as their guest, to be happy.
Do this instead: If you have dietary issues, mention them to your host in advance. Then you can decide, together, what works best for both of you and for the sake of the party’s flow.
Clearing the dishes after dinner
They’ve done so much work—the least you could do is help them clean up. But even if they welcomed your assistance throughout the evening, it’s worth keeping in mind that the dynamic might be different when it comes to clearing the table. “Something that guests often do that is well-intentioned (but I’d rather they didn’t do) is helping with dishes,” says seasoned dinner-party host Dustin Lemick. “Drinks have usually been flowing throughout the meal,” and this makes it more likely that dishes will get broken.
Moreover, your host may be particular about how they treat their china, crystal and silver. And you may know what goes in the dishwasher in your house, but you may not know what your host has in mind.
Do this instead: Wait for your host to begin clearing dishes before making moves to do so yourself. This will let them determine the flow of their event. If, when they do, you would like to help, make sure they’re on board with it, which you can do by either asking them or making strategic eye contact.
Staying late to catch up
Dinner parties are all about good times and good conversation, but sometimes you don’t get to talk as much as you’d like to the person you really want to spend time with: your host. Especially if that person is a good friend or one you haven’t seen in a while, you might think the time to catch up properly is after everyone else has left. Then you can really talk. Or maybe you just want to stay late to help clean up because you don’t want to leave them with a big, ol’ mess.
But staying late, even when it’s well intentioned, can put more pressure on your host. After all, point out frequent dinner-party hosts, planning the perfect night often goes hand-in-hand with having a long, busy day, and they might be tired! Also, they may want to end on a high note, not with you walking around their house with a trash bag in hand.
Do this instead: Take the serving of coffee as your clue that your host would like to wrap things up within the next hour. So if there’s something you want to do before the end of the night, coffee may be your best clue that the time is now.
- Dave Conway, co-founder of the small business consulting firm Roowaad
- Thomas G. Plante, PhD, Stanford University professor
- Michelle Chuang, founder of When East Meets West
- Nosheen, recipe developer
- Amy Margulies, RD, founder of The Rebellious RD
- Vered DeLeeuw, founder of the blog Healthy Recipes
- Dustin Lemick, CEO of BriteCo Jewelry Insurance