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18 Things Polite People Don’t Do on Thanksgiving

Etiquette experts agree that Thanksgiving is most enjoyable if people are polite. Here's what polite hosts and guests shouldn’t do on Turkey Day—especially this year.

Pumpkin pie, tart made for Thanksgiving day. Grey stone background. Top view Copy spaceAnna_Pustynnikova/Shutterstock

Don’t ignore these etiquette rules

Thanksgiving is one of the best holidays of the year. Aside from the delicious food, it’s the one day where you’re supposed to be grateful for what you have and just enjoy being together—you don’t even have to stress out about buying the perfect, most unique gifts for everyone on your list. Despite that, there are plenty of opportunities for aggravation and etiquette missteps, which is why you’ll probably want to avoid these 15 subjects you should never talk about at Thanksgiving dinner.

And this year, there’s more to worry about. Thanks to the global pandemic and the recent sharp rise in COVID-19 cases across the United States, Thanksgiving will definitely look different. Not only will you need to adjust your guest list, menu, and activities, but you’ll also need to update your etiquette. “We may all be sick and tired of this virus, but it isn’t tired of making us sick,” says epidemiologist Robert Amler, MD, a former CDC chief medical officer and the current dean of New York Medical College’s School of Health Sciences and Practice. “The nightmare is not over, and what we do now, over Thanksgiving, will have a huge impact on what happens the rest of the year.” With that in mind, here are the things you shouldn’t do this Thanksgiving—or any other.

There won't be any leftovers at this table!PeopleImages/Getty Images

Host or attend big gatherings (this year)

During any other holiday season, hosting or attending Thanksgiving dinner is a lovely gesture—and the more, the merrier!—but not this year. There’s nothing more impolite than potentially exposing your loved ones to a deadly virus. More than 1 million COVID-19 cases were reported in the United States over just the last seven days, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC released a statement about Thanksgiving 2020, saying that the safest way to celebrate the holiday is to do so at home with the people you live with and avoid gatherings with family and friends who do not live with you. Polite people don’t risk their loved ones’ health, Dr. Amler says. This may feel like a grim way to “celebrate,” but you can still make it an amazing holiday, starting with these 50 small things to be thankful about this Thanksgiving.

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Pressure others to break social-distancing guidelines

“It’s just dinner!” “Just come for two hours!” “Grandma will be heartbroken if you don’t come!” Regardless of how good your intent is, pressuring your loved ones to disregard the CDC guidelines is impolite at best and may create a huge family rift or—worst-case scenario—cause someone to get really sick. “Canceling the big family dinner may make Grandma sad now, but it’s better than having to visit her in the ICU at Christmas,” Dr. Amler says. The polite thing to do is support your loved ones in their health decisions. Think the pandemic is overblown or not real? Here are 6 things that prove COVID-19 is not a hoax.

We've made it this far, we'll make it through anythingshapecharge/Getty Images

Ignore how hard this choice is

On the flip side, some people are so determined to follow social-distancing guidelines to the letter that they lose sight of how difficult and upsetting this is for their loved ones. “People have really, really suffered from this—and not just from the disease itself,” Dr. Amler says. “People have suffered from financial problems, loss of opportunities, and isolation.” Instead of chastising loved ones for wanting to get together this Thanksgiving, the polite thing to do is to listen with kindness and empathy. “Lead with ‘I love you,’ then explain why you’re choosing to stay home,” he says. For tips on how to deal with this ongoing situation, find out how one former astronaut wards off feelings of isolation with strategies he learned in space.

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Forget the “four Ws”

If you do choose to host or attend a small gathering this year, Dr. Almer says to make it as safe as possible by following the four Ws: Wear a mask, wash your hands frequently, watch the distance between yourself and others, and walk away from groups. A polite host will provide plenty of soap, adequate seating (preferably outdoors), and masks for people who may forget one. A polite guest will follow the Ws and not argue with the host about social-distancing measures. Here are more etiquette rules for visiting friends during the pandemic.

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Treat this like any other year

This isn’t a “normal” Thanksgiving, and you should do everything you can to help mitigate the spread of the virus. This may mean using disposable dishes, limiting visitors or the length of visits, wearing masks, forgoing hugs, and toasting your gratitude over Zoom instead of in person. Whatever small sacrifices you need to make this year are worth it—and they’re not for forever. “Keep your eyes on the goal. The finish line is in sight,” Dr. Almer says. “We have good news about vaccines and treatments. We have every reason to believe that next year we will be able to celebrate Thanksgiving with our loved ones.” That said, some everyday habits could (and maybe should) change forever after coronavirus.

Welcoming friends at home during pandemic using surgical maskFG Trade/Getty Images

Arrive late

Whether you’re heading to someone else’s home this year or any other, remember this: It sometimes takes months to plan the perfect Thanksgiving in advance if you include the party planning, cleaning, and cooking. So etiquette expert, author, and “Golden Rules Gal” Lisa Grotts says polite people should never arrive late. “As a general rule of thumb, punctuality shows respect for people and time,” she explains. “In the off chance a guest is running late, it’s expected that they inform the host of their late arrival.” Similarly, polite guests don’t overstay their welcome, either. Again, it’s all about respecting people and their time. If the host starts putting away food and thanking guests for coming, it’s a clear sign to leave. Keep this in mind, along with these other holiday season etiquette tips.

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Show up to dinner empty-handed

Arriving to Thanksgiving dinner empty-handed is a big no-no. Emilie Dulles, who has more than 30 years of experience in traditional etiquette, says to check with the hosts ahead of time to find out if bringing a dish or a beverage is helpful. If you still think it’s not a big deal to arrive without a gift, remember that your host went out of their way to prepare for the holiday, says Bonnie Tsai, founder and director of Beyond Etiquette. “It’s important to bring a gift as a token of gratitude to express that you appreciate them opening up their home for you,” Tsai says. “You can choose a gift that is related to their passions or hobbies; even a bottle of wine could work, but always do a bit of research beforehand.” Use this guide to pick the right hostess gift for every occasion.

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Complain about the food

Polite guests don’t complain about Thanksgiving dishes not being identical to their childhood recipes, according to Dulles. “Polite guests embrace their hosts’ take on Thanksgiving fare and have a little bit of everything as a courtesy to whoever did the cooking,” she says. That said, no one will complain if you make something from this ultimate Thanksgiving menu.

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Hang out with the TV instead of friends or family

It’s so tempting to plop yourself in front of the TV after indulging in some turkey, but it’s also rude. Polite guests may enjoy watching some of the holiday TV shows, but they also offer to help with any last-minute tasks, Dulles says. Plus, Grotts adds that Thanksgiving is the perfect time to catch up with relatives and close friends. Each guest must earn their keep by making conversation. Instead of checking social media, put your phone down and focus on the food and people by your side, Tsai suggests. Liven up the conversation with some of these Thanksgiving jokes.

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Invite strangers or bring pets

It’s always important to check with your host before inviting strangers—even when we’re not in the middle of a pandemic. Never assume that it’s OK, and always confirm that your host is comfortable before inviting others, Tsai says. An extra guest also throws off a seated dinner, Grotts adds, so there’s more to it than you might realize.

You should also check with your host before bringing a pet. Another guest could have severe allergy issues, your pet might not get along well with your host’s pet, or your host may simply prefer to keep their home pet-free. The reason doesn’t really matter; the decision is theirs. You might feel bad leaving your pet alone, but think twice before bringing home consolation leftovers because these Thanksgiving foods are toxic to cats and dogs.

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Take too much food

Putting too much food on your plate and having it go to waste is one of the most unknowingly rude things people do on Thanksgiving, according to Dulles. “Just because the buffet is extra long and replete with dozens of dishes, it doesn’t mean that the Thanksgiving food should be treated as if it can be wasted willy-nilly,” she says. Thanksgiving leftovers can be eaten for days or given away to people who are hungry. Although Thanksgiving and overeating go together like wine and cheese, some people can take this too far. “Polite guests never overindulge when it comes to food, alcohol, or conversation,” Grotts says.

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Avoid the cleanup

After the joy of digging into turkey, potatoes, and stuffing wears off, it’s time for the dreaded cleanup. It isn’t so bad if polite guests help hosts. “Whether it is setting the table or doing dishes after a meal, it’s important to show your host that you’re not just taking advantage of their hospitality or treating their home like a restaurant where they have to pick up and clean up after you,” Tsai says. “Pitching in to help out shows that you’re respectful of their home and want to contribute as a guest.” Still, some hosts might refuse your help. Tsai says to listen, since you might be adding more trouble or stress in the kitchen rather than make it easier. There’s a lot of pressure to host a great party, and you’ll probably make these Thanksgiving mistakes along the way.

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Show up unannounced

Hosts spend lots of time planning for their Thanksgiving parties, and if someone shows up unannounced, it can throw a wrench into their planning. It’s equally rude to cancel at the last minute, according to Tsai. “Unless there is a true emergency that you need to take care of or something happened that is completely out of your control, show up on time and participate in the festivities that were planned for you,” Tsai says. That said, the rules are a little different this year. If you’ve been exposed to COVID, you’re feeling under the weather, or there’s been an infection spike in your area, it’s OK to cancel. Just do your best to let your hosts know what’s going on as early as possible. If you want to be invited back, follow these modern party etiquette rules.

Close-Up Of Hand Holding Paper With Thank You Text Against WallNatthaphorn Khamdamrongkiat / EyeEm/Getty Images

Forget to thank your host after the holiday

Polite people don’t forget to thank their host. Consider sending a handwritten thank-you note. Given the effort, time, and cost of putting together a Thanksgiving meal, polite guests remember to take a few minutes to pen a note of gratitude on nice stationery to their hosts, Dulles says. There are a few other times you must—yes, must—send a thank-you note.

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Put your guests to work all day

Guests aren’t the only people who need to brush up on their Thanksgiving manners. Hosts should note a few things, too. Polite hosts never put guests to work all day long, according to Dulles. Remember that guests aren’t staff or personal assistants. For example, don’t ask your guests to babysit or run out to buy things while you cook, unless they offer, Tsai says. “It’s acceptable to ask your guests to pick something up for you on their way to your home, but don’t expect them to run out to the store for you when they’ve arrived,” she adds. If you go to the store around Thanksgiving time, remember these things polite people don’t do at Costco.

Multi generation mixed race family raise their glasses to make a toast at their Thanksgiving dinner tableMonkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Bring up past grievances

Don’t make Thanksgiving awkward by bringing up old family dirt or any of these things you should never discuss at Thanksgiving dinner. Polite hosts set the tone for the celebration, so do your best to steer the conversation clear of controversy or touchy subjects. This might mean suggesting a change of subject or transitioning to another activity, Grotts says.

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Make your guests pick their seats

Polite hosts don’t leave their guests with the awkward task of picking their seats, according to Dulles. There’s one less thing to argue about if the host decides where everyone sits before people arrive. You can pull off the perfect holiday dinner seating chart with these tips.

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Ignore your guests’ dietary needs

Assuming all dishes work for all guests is a rookie mistake—and a rude one, at that. Ask your guests about food allergies and dietary restrictions before you plan your Thanksgiving menu. “No one expects the host to fully cater to their Keto or Atkins diet, but if you know a guest is vegetarian or is allergic to gluten, you wouldn’t serve dishes that they can’t enjoy,” Tsai says. “Be sure to make note of which dishes include meat or gluten so your guests know which dishes they can steer clear of if they have dietary restrictions.” People who have family and friends without restrictions should think about making these Thanksgiving recipes with secret ingredients.

Sources:

  • Robert Amler, MD, an epidemiologist, a former CDC chief medical officer, and the dean of New York Medical College’s School of Health Sciences and Practice
  • CDC: “Celebrating Thanksgiving”
  • Lisa Grotts, etiquette expert and author
  • Emilie Dulles, etiquette expert
  • Bonnie Tsai, founder and director of Beyond Etiquette

Emily DiNuzzo
Emily DiNuzzo is an associate editor at The Healthy and a former assistant staff writer at Reader's Digest. Her work has appeared online at the Food Network and Well + Good and in print at Westchester Magazine, and more. When she's not writing about food and health with a cuppa by her side, you can find her lifting heavy things at the gym, listening to murder mystery podcasts, and liking one too many astrology memes.
Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen, BS, MS, has been covering health, fitness, parenting, and culture for many major outlets, both in print and online, for 15 years. She's the author of two books, co-host of the Self Help Obsession podcast, and also does freelance editing and ghostwriting. She has appeared in television news segments for CBS, FOX, and NBC.