Does Old-School Etiquette Apply to Modern Parties?

In college, having a party was as easy as throwing your door open and letting passerby get an earful of your playlist. As we get older, planning and hosting gets more formal...or does it? Take a fresh look at some 'traditional' guidelines with contemporary expert input.

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Q: How far ahead should you send invitations?

Then: "Send an invitation too late and the guest may already be booked; send it too early and it might be misplaced or forgotten," warns the Emily Post Institute (which "maintains and evolves" the standards Emily Post set in her classic 1922 book Etiquette). The EPI suggests sending a Christmas party invite one month in advance.

Q: How far ahead should you send invitations?

Now: "Six weeks in advance is realistic for a busy holiday season," says national etiquette expert Diane Gottsman, founder of The Protocol School of Texas. "On the other hand, you can give too much lead time and people may be hesitant to respond because they aren't certain if they will be out of town or what their holiday plans will be." Save-the-date notes can go out even earlier: "I saw a friend post on Facebook last week about her 'friends Thanksgiving' that she hosts...she even said, 'I know it feels too far in advance, but you know how the holidays are,'" says Ariel Meadow Stallings, author of Offbeat Bride: Creative Alternatives for Independent Brides and publisher of Offbeat Bride and Offbeat Home.

Q: Are digital invites OK?

Then: As columnist and essayist Meghan Daum argued in the Los Angeles Times in 2006 (the dawn of the digital-invitation era), "With its overt competitiveness, flashy graphics and emphasis on strategy (no need to commit until you know if anyone interesting will be in attendance) Evite is essentially a written transcript of our collective social anxieties."

Q: Are digital invites OK?

Now: "A Paperless Post [online invite] is a great way to send an invitation," Gottsman says. A (comparatively) old-fashioned e-mail works as well, as long as you're discreet: "The entire guest list should not be shared." 

Q: How should you follow up with RSVP stragglers?

Then: "It is perfectly polite...for hosts to call friends to ask if they plan to attend. In fact, if you want an accurate headcount, you have no choice but to call those who haven't responded and ask whether they plan to come to your event or celebration," the Emily Post Institute says. "Yes, it's an awkward conversation. Be friendly, not accusatory. Say something like, 'Hi Janet, it's Marion, I'm calling to make sure you received the invitation to Uncle Jimmy's 80th birthday party, as I haven't heard from you. I hope you and Alex can attend. I need to give a final number to the caterer on Tuesday, so please call me back and let me know if you are able to be there. Thanks!'" [Won't someone think of the caterers?]

Q: How should you follow up with RSVP stragglers?

Now: "Call guests who have not responded and say, 'We are in full swing planning our party and would love to count you in. Will you be able to attend our party this Saturday?' There's a slim chance they didn't receive the invitation for some reason and you want to give them the benefit of the doubt, or a little nudge if it slipped their mind," Gottsman says. Stallings agrees: "It is one hundred percent cool to reach out to them directly. It doesn't need to be shame-y or heavy-handed, just a quick 'Hey, I wanted to make sure I have enough food/booze/confetti/whatever - think you'll be able to make it?'"

Q: Can a host give guests special instructions?

Then: The Emily Post Institute is all business on this one. "Invite clearly. Include necessary information for your guests in the invitation: the date, the time, the place, the occasion, the host(s) and when and how to respond 'yes' or 'no.' Add any special information such as what to wear or what to bring, say, for a pot-luck."

Q: Can a host give guests special instructions?

Now: Gottsman emphasizes clarity as well: "If it's a potluck and everyone brings dessert, fellow guests in the house will be disappointed and hungry for the entrée. On the other hand, if the host is providing the meal, he or she can ask for a dessert, a cheese tray, or an appetizer. Also, the host should ask if there are any allergies or dietary restrictions before planning the menu. On the RSVP they can say something like, 'Please help me plan the menu by letting me know if you have any allergies or food restrictions.'"

Q: How should a host word his or her dress code?

Then: "Dress terms, even apparently simple ones, are so widely interpreted as to be meaningless," Miss Manners advised a debutante(!) planning a cocktail party in 2008. "Does 'formal' mean evening clothes or just making sure you are wearing shoes? Does 'informal' (or that awful word, 'casual') mean real suits or sweat suits? Miss Manners suggests that instead of dealing with the problem by stating a code, you try making people realize that this is a special enough occasion that those who don't know the appropriate dress had better ask you."

Q: How should a host word his or her dress code?

Now: "Be very specific: Casual, semi-formal, black tie, etc. A host should not confuse a guest by saying something like 'Texas Jolly' or 'Holiday Merry,'" Gottsman says. "There are layers with dress code," Stallings observes. "When it's an issue of guest comfort, always over-communicate - i.e., 'We'll be on a boat after sunset, so be sure to bring a warm coat and wear comfortable shoes!' If it's an issue of party theme, know that if you get overly fussy about it, you may lose some guests. For instance, masquerade is one thing; 'Neo-Victorian dystopian dieselpunk' is a dress code that may just be a little too much to expect from folks. (Unless your friends are all theatrical types! You know your guests best.)"

Q: Can you ask guests to take off their shoes?

Then: Woe be to the (American) host who asks Miss Manners to take off her shoes: "Failing to take off one's shoes when arriving at a dinner party in Japan would show a lack of respect for the hosts, while seating guests with their backs to the most decorative part of the room is understood to honor them by having these objects serve as their background," she wrote in 1993. "But taking of one's shoes upon arriving at an American dinner party would be a demonstration of disrespect, while an American host who asks guests to remove their shoes in order to preserve the cleanliness of the carpet is disrespectful to the guests, by showing more honor to his possessions than to them."

Q: Can you ask guests to take off their shoes?

Now: "It's the host's prerogative to ask if they want their guest to remove their shoes. Of course, it's an added element of 'awkwardness' if someone doesn't want to, or has an unfortunate hole in the toe of his sock. It puts them in an uncomfortable situation before they walk in the door," Gottsman notes. "If the host has a good reason for asking, such as allergies or extreme weather, have a designated spot, perhaps a shoe basket or rack set at the door for them to comfortably remove their shoes and place them somewhere safe. Offer a pair of socks or new house shoes if you really want to 'do it right.'" As for the ask itself, "This is one of those things where social psychology and peer pressure are on your side," Stallings says. "If you answer the door with no shoes on, and there's a line of shoes clearly on display next to the inside of the door, most folks take the social cue."

Q: How do you signal that the party's over?

Then: Miss Manners notes that you don't have to mention disease (phew!). "The polite way to say 'Clear out of here' is 'I'm so sorry that I won't be able to have you here any longer.' It is not necessary to say that you are expecting someone else or have come down with smallpox. One does not need an excuse not to share one's house. Just keep insisting that you were glad to have been able to entertain this guest for so long but cannot continue to do so." She's referring to house guests, to be fair, but the smallpox advice probably applies to parties as well.

Q: How do you signal that the party's over?

Now: "A sophisticated guest is going to get the hint and start to end the evening when the food is put away and the drinks have stopped being served. If the party goes far too long and there are stragglers, the host should feel free to say, 'It's been great having you, but if you don't mind, I'm going to have to call it a night. I need to be up in a couple of hours and I need to get a little rest,'" Gottsman advises. "That, of course, is for the guest who simply won't leave!" "Start cleaning up," Stallings suggests. "If that doesn't work, ask them to help clean. THAT almost always works."

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