12 Things Etiquette Experts Want Party Guests To Know

We all love to party, but when the festive season is in full swing, it can sometimes be tricky to muster energy and enthusiasm night after night. From finding the right gift to knowing when it’s okay to bail, we asked four eminent experts in wine, etiquette and manners to share their tips to get you all the way through to 2020…


Try Not To Cancel

Lotte Jeffs, author of How To Be A Gentlewoman, tells us: “A gentlewoman is the opposite of flaky. I really think it’s unacceptable to cancel unless you or a family member is really ill. If you need to cancel for any other reason, I’d say a week is a polite amount of notice, particularly for a dinner party when someone might already be planning a meal, and doing the shopping. In my book, I urge people to really think about plans before they make them. Don’t say yes to anything you might regret on the day.” Lucy Hume, an etiquette expert at Debrett’s, adds: “If you need to cancel, especially at late notice, it's best to make an apologetic phone call – a text is unlikely to cut it. Sending a note or flowers is a gracious touch, but not essential.”

Never Arrive Empty Handed

“Other than a few obvious circumstances where your host doesn’t ‘do’ alcohol, I think it’s a wasted opportunity if you don’t bring wine as a guest,” says Tom Surgey of Ridgeview sparkling wine. “I reckon a single bottle in most circumstances – two if you know the crowd and worry one won’t touch the sides. Champagne is always appropriate for any occasion; English sparkling is even better. It’s small-production, handmade stuff. There is a great discovery for your hosts if they haven’t tried English wine; if they are old hands at the English wine thing, they’ll know you’ve really made the effort”. And if said dinner party happens to be Christmas Day itself? Lucy says: “If you would give your host a Christmas present even if they weren't hosting you for Christmas, then you should absolutely bring along an additional contribution for the day itself.”

Couples Can Double Up

“If you’re both planning on getting stuck into the wine, and the event calls for it, then it’s probably courteous to bring a bottle each. That said, if one is driving or it’s a relaxed, not-too-boozy occasion, I don’t think bringing just one bottle is a problem – I wouldn’t think about it if guests arrived with just one. There is always a local shop if an emergency happens later in the night. As ever, it’s quality over quantity,” says Tom.

Set A Budget For Presents

“It’s always best to spend a bit more on wines for friends than the average amount you would for a bottle at home, if possible,” advises Tom. “They should be a treat. That said, it is equally important not to overspend. I’ve done it a few times when I’ve felt under pressure to impress and always regretted it. Have a budget in mind for the bottle you want to bring and generally stick to it. If you want to keep it relatively budget for a social occasion, buy slightly off-the-beaten track wines as they’ll be better value than the headline-grabbing, famous styles like sauvignon blanc or chardonnay. Pick an obscure grape from an up-and-coming wine region and nine times out of ten it’ll pack a bit more bang for its buck as it’s fighting hard to develop its name.”

Weekend Stays Call For Greater Gifts

“For a weekend or overnight stay, consider a more substantial gift: a fine whisky, a few bottles of good wine, or even taking your hosts out for a meal,” says Lucy. “I’d bring two or three bottles: a mix of white, red and fizz,” says Tom. “Secretly, as well as the three I bring, I usually have an extra couple of bottles in the car. Just in case it really kicks off and backup is needed on the first night. Bring the most special ones in first, the backup bottles don’t need to be perfect matches to food. I go easy-drinking, bright, fruity reds and medium-bodied, fruity whites – if they’re required”.

Make Sure To Mingle

Though turning up to a party solo might feel intimidating, you’ll make even more work for your hosts if you need looking after or checking on. Etiquette expert William Hanson explains: “You have not been invited to chat to only one or two people. Spend ten minutes or so with each person you talk to and focus on inviting in bystanders and looking after those who look a little lost. Excellent guestmanship will ensure you are invited back time and time again.”

Keep Your Phone In Your Bag

All of our experts were united when it came to keeping phones well and truly out of sight. As William says, “You have been invited to socialise with humans, not followers and fans. By all means quickly check your phone when you pop to the loo, but never at the table before or during the meal.” Lucy agrees: “It’s polite to keep your phone out of sight in any social situation. If you need to use it to take photos or book an Uber, resist the temptation to check messages or social media as well. Doing so will inevitably distract you from the party and your fellow guests.”

Offer To Help, But Don’t Insist

“A simple ‘Can I do anything to help?’ should suffice, but don’t feel you have to insist if your offer is declined,” says Lucy. “Your host or hosts may prefer to keep guests front of house rather than allowing them behind the scenes. On Christmas Day itself, help is likely to be more readily accepted – particularly when it comes to the washing up.” 

Don’t Overstay Your Welcome

“If it’s a drinks party, then you need not stay for the whole thing. Usually these are three-hour things so staying for two-thirds is a good idea. For dinners, take your cues from the hosts. When the food and drinks stop being offered, it’s time to go,” says William. 

Return The Favour

“The rule is you have six months to return the hospitality – and like for like. A catch-all drinks party in exchange for a dinner four months ago is not valid,” says William. Debrett’s take a slightly more relaxed approach, but agrees the favour absolutely must be returned in some way. “Hosting doesn't always need to be quid pro quo, but it is certainly polite to reciprocate any hospitality,” says Lucy. “If you are unable to offer a return invitation, you could treat your hosts to dinner out or a trip to the theatre.” 

Always, Always Say Thank You

“A handwritten thank-you card is certainly sufficient and a suitably thoughtful way of expressing your gratitude,” says Lucy. “If you know a friend has gone to particular efforts or been very generous, flowers or a gift are also entirely appropriate.” For William, “A thank-you letter is ample unless you forgot to bring a hostess gift, in which case you would send a gift after with the letter.”

And When It’s Your Turn To Host

“I think etiquette on receiving a bottle of wine is just as important as what a guest brings,” says Tom. “Too often, a guest brings a nice bottle and the host tucks it away in the cupboard for another night and serves something less interesting to guests. No, no, no. If a guest brings a bottle, you have to offer to open it and serve it to the room. Unless the bottle is wrapped or in a fancy bottle-bag, is unchilled or is clearly a present for the hosts rather than a contribution to the night. Share the love!” Lucy advises: “High expectations around the festive season put additional pressure on those hosting parties or meals, which can mean we end up stressed out and forget to spend time with our guests. The key to being a good host is providing a warm welcome, ensuring no one is left out and making sure glasses are topped up. Cater within your comfort zone, so that you’re not stuck in the kitchen all day or night.”

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