Mind your holiday manners

On hostess gifts, dinner conversation and late-arriving guests

The holidays are full of questions and not all of them have to do with gift-giving. So, what constitutes good manners at parties, dinners and family gatherings? For instance, is it OK to show up at someone’s door with unexpected guests? Do your hosts really expect, or need, an RSVP?

Daniel Post Senning, spokesman for the Emily Post Institute and co-host of the podcast Awesome Etiquette, weighs in on 21st-century holiday etiquette questions for hosts and guests.

Is it OK to invite only some members of a family or to say “adults only” to a holiday party?
It’s perfectly acceptable to have a “no kids” function, although that message often requires subtlety, so use of all your social skills. If you know someone won’t get that cue, call them and say something along the lines of “I know last time you brought so and so, but this time it’s just for adults … and I hope you and Sue can join us.”

But be careful about excluding people at big events. That includes spouses. They have a special place. They are not a “plus one.”

How important are RSVPs?
Some people aren’t used to committing or are scared to say no, but the hardest thing for a host to hear is question mark. So yes, they’re important.

Is it OK, then, to call and remind someone who hasn’t responded?
You are essentially calling them out for not having the courtesy to respond, so any follow-up should have a light touch. To soften the awkwardness, you might say you just wanted to make sure the invitation was received or that you didn’t misplace the reply. That will ease the burden off them.

Should you keep your food allergies/sensitivities to yourself?
Not only is it OK to tell your host, but also it is guest etiquette. If you have a diet that’s difficult for your host to understand — for instance, a gluten intolerance — be prepared to explain how to handle it and to bring a dish. That will help establish your goodwill.

As a host, it’s your job to accommodate your guests and make them comfortable. If you can’t redesign the whole menu, you might offer one special dish.

What if you’re served something you can’t eat?
The courtesy is to try everything you’re served, but you don’t have to eat everything to make your host feel good, although I wouldn’t make a big show of not eating it.

What’s a good hostess gift, and is one expected?
Wine is a great gift that can go right in the wine cabinet, and flowers in a vase are always nice. But also consider specialty food items or little things for home, especially if there’s a specialty from your hometown. It’s the thought that counts.

Someone’s late. When can you start eating?
Two rudes don’t make a right, so stall as long as you can. But if the roast beef is getting cold, go ahead and begin. When the late arriver shows, catch him at the door, offer a gracious welcome and tell him you have a plate waiting in the kitchen. And let him know you waited as long as you could.

Even worse, your neighbor shows up early?
Do the best you can. Settle them on the couch with a drink and tell them you have to do whatever. A good strategy is to be ready 10 minutes before a party starts and spend five minutes of it relaxing. Your attitude sets the tone for the event.

The presidential election is sure to come up at the Thanksgiving table. How do I tell Grandpa Joe to keep his thoughts about Donald or Hillary to himself?
Politics, religion, someone’s love life — the price of admission for talking about these topics is that you’re willing to listen to different opinions. Don’t attack anyone personally, and be willing to concede the last word if things get ugly. It is impossible to argue if you don’t argue back.

If the stakes are higher, say someone traveled far to be there, save the political conversations for the den after dinner to spare hurt feelings, Hosts have a responsibility to monitor the talk at the table. If talk is hurtful, it’s entirely appropriate to interject and redirect the conversation.

What about people who hijack every conversation?
The host has the prerogative to insert herself more assertively into conversation and to direct it in another direction.

My sister-in-law always under-seasons her mashed potatoes. Is it rude to add salt and pepper?
It’s not rude, but you want to taste it first. Particularly if you’re in the presence of the cook.

What’s the protocol when it comes to returning pans and containers after a holiday feast?
It’s up to the host to make the returns. Helpful guests can label their containers and hosts should consider keeping Post-its at the door and labeling dishes as guests arrive.

Is it OK to ask for leftovers?
Not unless the host says “take it,” as it’s an “ask” that places a burden on the host. As a guest, you want to make the smallest footprint as possible.

What’s the best way to leave a party early?
Always make sure to say goodbye and thank you to each of your hosts. This is best done in person on the way out the door. If the party is huge or you can’t find them, send a text or note the next day.

Should guests send handwritten thank you notes, or is an email OK?
If the party is informal and you’re familiar with your host, a thank you on your way out the door meets social obligation. If the event is formal, or when someone has taken the time to prepare a meal for you, a handwritten note is appropriate.