Dinner parties, a meal with friends sandwiched between status updates and careful cropping. We have laid out our guide to simple yet highly important dinner party etiquette, relevant to all occasions, ages and types of individuals. We've channelled great-great-grandmother vibes and updated her dinner-party rules for the hashtag generation!
What time should you arrive?
Fashionably late is defiantly a thing, although being un-fashionably late can just be rude! When the invitation goes out, if it says arrive at 7:30pm you should either turn up on the dot, or at 7:45, never early!
The host has been slaving all day, don't leave them stressed and having to entertain your impatience! In Italy it’s polite to arrive even an hour late, as they are very laid back. However, if you are in Germany make sure you turn up on the dot. Do not be late.
In the (regrettable, but likely) event you are running late, be up front with the host about your E.T.A., perhaps even overestimate. Be brief and honest and leave the protracted sagas to Tolstoy. Also, give the host permission to proceed without you, and if you’re going to be more than an hour late, ask the host if it’s better you just don’t come, at least the ball is then back in their court.
Host: Be ready when you said the evening would begin. It sounds pretty simple, but it’s a common mistake, Post laments. “One of the easiest mistakes that hosts and hostesses make is that they’re not ready on time. Let’s say you told people to arrive at seven. Chances are people will get there between 7 and 7:30, but you tell people to arrive at 7, and at 7, you’ve still got way too much stuff on the stovetop and you haven’t laid out the hors d’oeuvres or drinks.”
Should You Bring A Present?
Traditionally you would NEVER bring a bottle of wine, as it insinuated that the host’s collection was not good enough! Nowadays, the rules are slightly more relaxed, but you should always tailor the wine to your hosts preference. If they like a Merlot from France, then don’t just pick up the cheapest one on the shelf!
If the host doesn’t like wine, then buy them chocolates, because everyone likes chocolates, and in the rare occasion they don’t, they will know someone who does. Or something seasonal that may not be for the evening, like a jam or preserve.
NEVER bring flowers! This is very rude. If you bring flowers then you are only asking them to do more work! They don’t have time to be cutting stems while the soufflé is in the oven! If you do insist on gifting flowers, then send them a few days prior, or make sure they come cut and in a vase with water, maybe a plant or succulent would be a more practical shout.
What If You Don't Like Your Welcome Drink?
More often than not your host will offer you champagne or cocktails upon arrival. So what happens if you don't like it, fear not. A good host won’t leave you to drink something you don’t like, and definitely won’t be mad when you ask for something else. The key is all in the execution of doing that. Let’s start with the don’ts.
Don’t spit out your drink. Don’t fling it in their face. Don’t grimace. And definitely don’t go, “blech!”
Seems obvious enough, right? Now, the approach.
Put your drink aside, and catch the eye of the host. An excellent host is an excellent people person, and in edition to checking in on you regularly will probably notice you’re not enjoying your drink.
Remember also, do not take welcome drinks through to the dinner table when the food is ready. The table has been wonderfully set with a lot of care and attention, and if you are bringing an extra glass to the table, then you are just going to mess everything up. If you haven’t finished the drink, well tough, that is your fault! When you are called for food, find a surface to put your drink on.
How Should You Toast?
At the start of any meal, it’s polite to wait until every guest has been served food and drink prior to digging in. And before you lift a fork, it’s customary to raise glasses and says, “Cheers!" However, whatever you do, don’t ‘clink’ your drink with too much passion! You do not want to damage your hosts crystal glassware. This tradition dates back to when people would drink with wooden tankers in alehouses.
Be sure to make eye contact, and remember it’s unnecessary to actually touch glasses with everyone, especially at a large table, but lifting your glass with a smile or a nod will do. If you’re asked to provide a longer toast or give a speech at the start of a meal, it’s best to keep it short and sweet. Everyone’s hungry!
In addition, if you are a guest at the dinner party, it's better to wait to ‘cheers’ when the host asks you to do so. Likewise, a good host will always command the hosting toast.
Vast numbers of knife and forks can be confusing. However there is a simple rule to follow. Start from the outside and work your way in, and remember that everything bar the soup spoon has a partner, so you should always be double parked with cutlery.
Also please use the acronym BMW to ensure you do not steal anyone else's food! B - Bread, make sure you eat from the side bread plate on your left. M - Middle - eat off the main plate in front of you, and drink from the glass directly ahead of you. W - Wine - Always drink from the wine glass to your right.
How Do You Handle Your Bread?
The bread should be torn not cut. Never cut your bread. This dates back to medieval times where blood would be on the knife, and people not wanting to get blood on their bread. This tradition has carried through the years, so tear off a small chunk of your bread, and bring it to your mouth - not the other way round.
Only use the knife to butter your bread. Whatever you do, if you have a soup with you bread, do not dunk it! This can be seen as common, and should really only be done at your own home with your curtains closed!
How Should You Eat Soup?
When tackling soup, make sure you scoop away from you, and then drink from the nearest side of the spoon. You should under no circumstances, put the whole spoon in your mouth. Please do not slurp either!
Should You Ask Someone To Pass The Food Or Drink?
Even if you are a guest you are part of a communal experience, and should also be looking after other people. That being said, if you want the new potatoes or white wine and it is not in your vicinity, then the etiquette is to ask the person it’s nearest to if they would like some, in the hope they will return the favour and ask you. If all else fails, just simply ask them to pass the item over to you responding with your P's & Q's. If there remains space on the table, return it to the same space, or place it somewhere it is not in the way of anyone.
What's Polite Napkin Etiquette?
If you are hosting and making a fancy napkin arrangement, then place this in the middle of your guest’s space. If it’s a smaller flat napkin, then this should be on the left hand side. As a guest NEVER tuck it into your shirt or dress and trail it down you. You are not in a fast food shop. Place it on your lap.
Traditionally you should never leave the table to go to the toilet during the dinner as it can be deemed very rude. You should control your fluid intake, and just cross your legs. If there is a Monarch in the room then definitely do not leave the table!
If your hosts are more relaxed, then only leave the table between courses, and leave your napkin on the seat. When you are done and leaving the table, place the napkin neatly where your plate was.
Should You Pour Your Own Drinks?
If the host of the party has wine or drinks on the table, then that is them saying ‘help yourself’. If the champagne is to the side of the table then this indicates the host or staff will pour.
Is Asking For Condiments Acceptable?
Slathering your food in tomato ketchup or mayonnaise can be very offensive, as it insinuates that your host has not seasoned your food adequately. However if there are sauces or salt and pepper on the table, this means that your host is happy for you to add them to your dinner.
If you do obsess over a certain condiment not provided, try to ask politely for this before tasting the food, so they know it is not due to the taste and it is personal preference.
Where To Sit
If there is no laid out seating plan, note that couples should sit apart to avoid a public display of affection putting guests off their food. With good friends also being distanced slightly, only to avoid potentially ignoring the people either side. Not at opposite ends of the table of course, but with at least someone between. This dates back to Georgian times, where they would separate couples who were married as they probably hated each other by then!
How Slow Or Fast Should You Eat?
As a guest, you should make sure you try and keep up with everyone else. You should make sure that you finish your food within a minute or two of everyone else finishing. A good host would monitor how quickly everyone else is eating, making sure they were keeping pace with the slowest eater, and finish last.
As For Using Your Phone... Be Present
Rule 101 of dinner parties is to detach from using your phone. A huge part of the experience is to talk to the guests and share your own stories. Do not be selfish and peak at your phone. If you are that busy and feel the need to check your phone, go to the bathroom, as no matter how discreet you think you are, someone will see the reflection of the light from the phone on your face.
Social Media - If any of your guests love you at all, they will Instagram the dickens out of the evening you so carefully and flawlessly executed, so that friends of friends will quake with envy after finding you on the “Explore” page. But there is a time and place for all of this when actual sentient beings are together, which is to say, post after the event.
If you must be available for an important call or text, switch the ringer off and excuse yourself from other guests when answering your phone.
Sit-down meals can often feel more intimidating than cocktail parties. Your every move is likely noticed, and you’re essentially stuck chatting with those around you. A good rule of thumb is to listen as much as you talk. A good conversationalist asks thoughtful questions and allows everyone to take their turn answering. If you ever get stuck, just ask as many questions as possible, turn to nature is all else fails!
Mingling is particularly important if you arrive at a party with a date: make an effort to talk to other guests. If you’re hosting a dinner, assigned seats work well to mix up talkative guests with quieter ones. Or if it's a less formal affair, find conversational topics for certain individuals and pair them up, starting a convo and subsequently sneaking off with them in full flow!
Don't forget, it is just as terrifying for the host if people don't get on, so help the host out by making an effort with everyone, especially the individuals who may not know as many people, or are a little more shy to begin with, they will loosen up as the night progresses if they feel at ease.
Enjoy Yourself—Within Reason
Do not over-indulge, be it on alcohol or food. Of course your host wants you to make yourself comfortable and feel at home, but you’re still a guest at someone’s party. This means, not drinking so much alcohol to the point of becoming messy or an annoyance to other guests.
Also, ensuring there’s enough food to share amongst everyone. At the end of the night, asking to take leftovers home—whether it’s unfinished dessert or open bottles of wine—looks tacky. If you truly love a dish, ask the host for the recipe.
What to do with someone who’s had one too many? Look to our nation’s Cold War policy of yore: containment. Isolate them. Put them in a room and offer to keep them for the night. It’s really a safety issue, adding that you are more or less taking on that responsibility when you serve alcohol in your house. Take away their keys, say, "I’m insisting, you don’t have a choice, you’re staying here for the night. We will work it all out in the morning." And if they will not stay, after generously recommending, then you of course have no choice but to let them leave, however pints of water and a slice of bread wouldn't go a miss.
As many etiquette conventions have fallen away, this one is timeless: do not bring someone unless you have cleared it with the host first. Even if it is not a seated dinner, it is not a barn raising. More than likely it will be fine, but who are you to decide? If an unexpected plus-one materialises, the good gracious host is going to welcome the uninvited guest in. They’re going to figure out how to rearrange the plates, add an extra place setting, and make it work. Make an uninvited guest feel just as comfortable. The more may be the merrier, but it is not your call as a guest.
Stay Neutral...Or Prepare For Sparks
Lively conversation will no doubt wander to the realm of Politics, and whether it’s divisive or just plain dull, a good host can re-route a boring or inelegant conversation on a dime, especially if it's a touchy subject based on personal opinion or belief.
The best way to steer the conversation if it goes into politics, religion, or someone’s burgeoning sex life is to politely interject and offer, “Sorry to interrupt, but I was wondering if I could get everyone’s opinion on X,” people will be happy to oblige. You invite people into a topic that’s about you and it’s a clear note to the offenders to change course.
Pitching in is admirable if the situation requires it, but it can often verge into awkward territory. You can always offer to help out, but you don’t have to insist upon it. Let yourself be a guest. Don’t try to insert yourself into everything unnecessarily.
The thank you is definitely the most impactful gesture for the guest. Say thank you when you leave, of course. And especially with people you’ve just started entertaining with.
It’s unnecessary to say goodbye to every guest, especially at larger gatherings. This is particularly true of cocktail parties: don’t announce your exit to everyone. It interrupts conversations, breaks the general rhythm of the party, and often makes other guests wonder if it’s time for them to leave too. In these cases, it’s perfectly acceptable to exit quietly. However, no matter the size of the party, it’s always important to thank and say bye to the host. A follow-up message or call the next day telling the host how much you enjoyed the party is always lovely too.
It's worth noting that when the host decides the evening is over, he or she may close down the bar. Once a host cuts people off from alcohol, they will most probably get the hint and be ready to go somewhere else or just home.
And if that doesn’t work, a host may simply begin talking about the evening in the past tense: "What a great night this was!” The key is to be clear, and they will get the point.