Understanding Etiquette Part Eight: Hosting a Dinner Party

Welcome back to Understanding Etiquette – the series where we get to grips with the customary codes of polite behavior, and how to abide by them.

In last edition, we talked about how sports field etiquette can help you in the world of business. In this edition, we’re moving out of the office and into the home. Specifically, we’re talking about the etiquette of hosting.

Hosting a dinner party isn’t rocket science. But, there are some important etiquette issues you need to abide by if you want things to run smoothly.

So without further ado, let’s dive in with an obvious, but still vital piece of advice.

Be Present

Photo by Antenna

There’s a lot to consider when hosting a dinner party, especially when it comes to the food side of things. You want to make sure that all your guests’ meals are ready at the same time, that food is served hot, that everything is cooked properly… the list goes on.

But, you need to make sure that these tasks don’t distract you from your responsibilities as a host. Spending 80% of your time in the kitchen at the expense of your guests does not a good event make. It’s your party, and people will be looking to you to guide the evening. If you’re not around, then things can get a bit awkward and uncomfortable.

There are a couple of good strategies for getting around the “always in the kitchen” dilemma. Firstly, don’t bite off more than you can chew (pun intended) when it comes to the menu. Yes, a lavishly prepared culinary masterpiece might impress some partygoers, but that effort is for nothing if you’re not actually present at your own shindig. Simpler dishes that can be mostly prepared beforehand are always a good option (check out our Home Economics for Men series for some easy-to-make, yet delicious meal ideas if you’re stuck).

Secondly, leave the washing up until after your guests have left. Hosting is today’s priority. The cleanup is tomorrow’s.

Choose Your Guests Wisely

Photo by Juliette F

When throwing a dinner party, it’s tempting to simply invite the people that you like. In practice, though, this can lead to challenges once the event kicks off.

A dinner party is very different from the kind of large-scale gatherings you used to host in college. You’re getting a group of 6-10 adults together, in close quarters, and expecting them to sustain a conversation for the better part of three-to-five hours.

As you’re putting together the guest list, you need to think about the personalities of the people you’re inviting, and how those personalities might interact. A great dinner party is about balance. You don’t want your gregarious, outgoing guests to outweigh your more shy and retiring friends. And, you want those people to be able to find some common ground. 

Think About The Seating Plan

Photo by Mitchell Lawler

It’s not just about who you invite to your dinner party, it’s about where you sit them. Coming up with the right seating plan will take some planning on your part, but it’s a surefire way to facilitate a better dining experience.

How you do this will depend on your guests’ needs, the kind of people that you’re inviting, and the number of people that you’re hosting (if you’re only being joined by, say, four guests, the seating plan is less important given the proximity you’ll all be in).

As a general rule, though, here are some things worth remembering:

  • It’s ok to split up married, or good as married couples (though don’t sit them too far away from each-other)
  • It’s not ok to split up new couples
  • Balance out the extroverts and the introverts (to avoid conversation vacuums)
  • Sit guests that don’t know anybody next to those that are either easy to get along with, or share common interests

Speaking of which…

Make Introductions

Friends dont let friends be on their smartphone at a party

If you’re throwing a party where all your guests are longtime friends, then this one is less important. But, if your guests are only acquaintances, or indeed, have never met before, then making introductions is essential.

Your aim, as host, is to make everyone feel at ease. And, a big part of that is making sure that everyone knows everyone else and that any awkwardness or embarrassment in breaking the ice is done away with.

Introducing people isn’t just about learning names, though. It’s also your job to facilitate conversation. Two guests might not know each-other, but you know the both of them, and that means you can find a common ground subject for them to get a conversation started: “Sam, this is Jeff. Jeff is a big Raiders fan. Sam, you played college football, right?” You get the idea.

If the two guests don’t have any common ground that you’re aware of, that’s fine as well. Just giving some general information about the other person or initiating an icebreaker conversation gives the other conversationalists something to work with. For more on this, we’d recommend reading the first two articles in this series on conversation etiquette.

Accommodate for Dietary Needs

Photo by Sara Dubler

Finally, part of being a good host means making sure that all of your guests are properly taken care of. There’s nothing worse than preparing a meal, only to have visitors arrive and to discover that someone is unable to eat what you’ve made.

If you know that friends have specific allergen or dietary requirements, then prepare a menu that accommodates for those issues (I particularly cannot eat shellfish). If you can, make sure that all your dishes are free of that particular allergen. Serving a separate meal to one guest singles them out, and raises awkward conversations about dietary issues on the day. If someone has a lot of dietary issues, this might ultimately be inevitable. But, you should still try to avoid it when possible.

When you’re dealing with guests that you’re not so familiar with, it’s advisable to send out your intended menu well ahead of time. That way, they can inform you if there’s something they can’t eat, and you can make amendments accordingly. That’s it for this edition. Join us next time when we turn the tables, and explore the etiquette of being a dinner party guest.