9 Things You Should Stop Doing When at a Dinner Party, According to Etiquette Experts

These pointers will make you the MVP attendee—and help you score an invitation again!

Young adults attending a dinner party
Photo: Getty Images

With the advent of smartphones, email, virtual invites, and modern norms, a lot has changed in the etiquette space since Emily Post founded her institute in 1946.

"The traditional way of gathering that our parents and grandparents enjoyed has all but gone away," explains Edward Perotti, the San Francisco-based owner of EP Events & Experiences who has hosted events across the globe (including at the Louvre Museum in Paris!) for more than 27 years. "The modern generation is focused more on the experience of the gathering, rather than abiding with formal, rigid customs and practices. However, some things are timeless, and they're just plain good manners."

We don't know about you, but we're feeling a little rusty about socializing after several years of pandemic life. All the while, dinner party invitations are rolling in as people are excited to share a table—and perhaps their pandemic-perfected spaces and new sourdough skills. So we tapped several manners-minded experts to share their top dinner party guest tips.

9 Things to Stop Doing When You're a Dinner Party Guest

Follow all nine—or even most—of these pro tips, and you'll pretty much guarantee a repeat invite.

1. Don't act like a party doesn't require advanced preparation

After you RSVP, which you should ideally do ASAP once you're sure you can attend, the first thing on your "best guest" to-do list should occur the day before or day of the event. Call or text to ask the host: "Can I help you? Do you need me to cook anything? Can I arrive a little early to help you set up?"

"By waiting this long you have given them enough headspace to fully design their menu without inadvertently placing any pressure on them if they still had some loose ends to tie up," says Belle DuChene, agency director and adjunct professor of strategic communications in Des Moines, Iowa.

Celeste Headlee, a Washington, DC-based journalist, radio host, professional speaker, and author of We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter is often the host herself, and has all-too-many-times realized she has forgotten one or two things the day of the soirée.

"Call the host within an hour of the party starting and say, 'Hey, I'm near a grocery store. Is there anything that you need me to pick up?' These advanced questions really help," Headlee says.

2. Don't bring an unexpected plus one

The invitation should specify if the host is inviting you, your entire family, or you and a guest (your partner or otherwise). If you're unsure, reply with your RSVP or reach out to the host to ask.

"One of the rudest moves any guest can do is show up with an extra surprise guest. Ask before you assume it's okay—and let the host know that it's totally fine if they say no," Perotti says.

3. Don't show up too early

Since it will potentially force the host into rushing around, don't arrive before the invitation's declared start time.

"You probably aren't firm on the final plans for the evening, so be respectful and arrive on time," Perotti says.

If you want to do as the French do, you then have a 15-minute window to arrive gracefully before you're potentially awkwardly late.

"No matter what, even if you need to drive around the block seven times, deliberately arrive at the dinner party a little less than 15 minutes late," DuChene adds. "This unspoken rule is one I picked up while living abroad in France. The French refer to it as 'le quart d'heure de politesse,' which translates to 'the 15 minutes of politeness.' It's a code of conduct to graciously offer the host a bit more time to complete any unforeseen tasks or freshen up."

4. Don't arrive empty handed

If you're curious about if you should bring something, "YES. Bring a host gift," Perotti confirms.

The worst things to bring are items that are presumptive, Headlee says. We often make choices about what gift to bring by thinking "What would I want as a host gift?" That can cause problems because we are all so individual and we like individual things—and already have items that you might duplicate.

Here's your best and worst list, according to Headlee, DuChene, and Perotti:

Best:

  • Candles, to be used after the event
  • Self-care gifts like lotion or any kind of pampering items you know they will enjoy
  • Chocolates, candies, or a crowd-pleasing cheese (being aware of the host family's dietary restrictions)
  • House plants
  • A beverage for them to enjoy the next day, like tea or coffee
  • A bottle of wine, to share, if they have instructed you about what to bring; otherwise packaged with a note letting them know it's theirs to enjoy at a later date

Worst:

  • Flowers, unless you know about allergies and cultural traditions
  • Regifted items (If you didn't want it, why would they?)
  • Expensive or elaborate items, as this is not the time to overdo it and outshine their generous hosting or make them feel like they owe you

For something a tad unconventional, if it's a party at a home or unit with its own private outdoor space, DuChene likes to bring a bag of ice and let the host know it's available outside if they need it.

"Since conception of the ice box, it seems that the ice always runs out too quickly and the host is forced to send a significant other frantically out into the night to run this pesky errand when they would rather be having fun with the group," she says. "Do this and you will be moved to 'genius' status!"

5. Don't be shy

Try to read the room, taking note of who is there and who is not being engaged. Often, there are individuals who don't know everyone (or anyone) and could be included in a conversation, Headlee says. Aim to ask open-ended questions that aren't necessarily connected to their work, since not everyone has a 9-to-5 job or wants to "talk shop" during off hours.

A few great conversation topics to consider asking about:

  • Hobbies
  • Pets
  • What they're reading, watching, or listening to
  • One thing they're looking forward to in the next month

Whatever you do, remember that this is not the time for a monologue, either. Conversations go both ways.

"Don't talk about yourself the whole time,"DuChene says. "Instead, try to get people to share information about themselves by asking open-ended questions. This helps break the ice for strangers and builds stronger relationships. Plus, because people like to talk about themselves, they will see you as a fun person to talk to and the intrigue of them not actually knowing too much about you will keep them coming back for more. It's the best networking tool I have ever learned."

6. Don't be afraid to improv

One of the main tenets of improv comedy is that you take every statement or action and build on it with a "yes, and…" mindset.

"Most dinner party etiquette 'fails' happen because we don't follow this basic rule of improv," Headlee believes. "Someone has spent a lot of time designing an evening for you, so go with the flow. Dinner parties are only a couple of hours, so you can go along with someone's plan for a couple of hours without inserting your will or creating boundaries."

For the most part, people will make reasonable requests of you (say, asking you to remove your shoes or follow the flow of the evening's timing), so try to follow the leader rather than resist.

7. Don't make a fuss about dietary preferences

This suggestion is sticky because it can be argued both ways—and rightly so—but DuChene is a firm believer that unless you have a deadly food allergy or there is an ingredient that could put you in the hospital, do not recite your entire listicle of dietary restrictions or preferences to your host.

"This announcement strikes fear as they start to juggle a long list of requests to try and keep everyone happy. The host will ideally know to ask in advance or have various options for dishes available. If they don't, no sweat, eat a small bite before heading out the door and politely—and as discreetly as possible—pass on dishes that don't work for you," DuChene explains.

If you can't eat something, it's okay to quietly ask what is in something. You can simply pull the host aside and ask, "Hey, I have celiac disease and can't eat gluten, can I ask you which dishes are safe for me?"

"It's fair to ask, but you don't need to point out every dish you can't or won't eat," Headlee says, and draw the attention away from the beautiful spread.

8. Don't act like cleaning fairies will take care of it all

"Always—seriously, always—offer to assist with cleaning up," Perotti says. "Your offer may be turned down, which seems to be the standard reply. So, this is your opportunity to insist. Let your host know that you want them to enjoy time with their guests as well."

A great way to make this a reality is to ask the other guests to help out and move the party to the kitchen for a cleanup session. The work will be done quicker, and afterwards you all can relax together, he says.

If they absolutely don't want you to lend a hand (perhaps their kitchen is not in guest-ready shape), you will be able to tell by the host's body language and response to your offer. Try to read the room, and don't force it if the host reiterates that they would prefer to clean up later.

9. Don't forget to have a good time

Don't get caught up in formal etiquette, Headlee warns. You don't need to read Emily Post before you go to a dinner party (although we are obsessed with the modern-day etiquette podcasts "Were You Raised By Wolves" and "Awesome Etiquette" if you want to brush up on some bonus advice!).

"Be compassionate, kind, and aware of what other people are doing or saying. Don't get wrapped up in yourself, and you will be okay," Headlee says. "Keep in mind you have been invited to a special event that someone has put time and effort into planning for you. They want you to enjoy yourself. For them it is a huge disappointment if someone doesn't enjoy themselves. So just be careful about the things that you say or do that will imply to your host that you aren't having a great time."

Be mindful, be authentic, and most importantly, have fun, Perotti says. Oh yes, and send a thank-you note!

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