Cocktail Party Etiquette for the Host and Guest

Tips for Hosting a Cocktail Party
I love a good cocktail party, I love hosting them and attending them.  I believe the art of hosting a cocktail party is a bit lost.  I learned much of what I know about hosting from my sister-in-law Ellen; she is a fabulous host, you always feel at home, she is very accommodating of her guest’s needs, and she is great at keeping the conversation going by managing introductions between guests to make sure that no one ever feels left out or lonely during one of her parties.  Don’t get me started about the fabulous food she always serves, whether catered or homemade; there is something for everyone.  Here are some key Cocktail Party Etiquette questions with answers that I have learned from her and by being a host myself.

Cocktail Party Etiquette for the Host:

How do you gently ask people to leave? A great way to signal that the party is coming to a close without having to directly and verbally ask guests to leave is to gradually start turning on lights, turning down the music, and beginning the cleanup. Guests will get the hint that it’s time to leave when they see you putting dishes in the sink or tying up the trash. This, in addition to the lights, will give guests a visual clue while the music gives an aural clue. If none of those actions seem to be working, it’s totally fine to be honest with your guests and say (starting with your closest friends/guests), “We’ve had such an incredible evening, but unfortunately, we have to get up early tomorrow to [insert activity here]. We will definitely plan something again soon!”

How to indicate that you don’t want children at the party?
Cocktail party etiquette would suggest a few options for this, mostly revolving around the invitation. If you’re designing an actual paper invitation to be mailed out (or even just the image of the invitation to be emailed or texted), it’s acceptable to write “Adults only, please” in italics below the RSVP line. If you’re sending out an electronic invitation through a website (think Evite or Paperless Post) where you can write a message to guests, you could write something clever to indicate that children are not invited, something along the lines of “We’re looking forward to toasting our friends at this party exclusively for the grown-ups,” or even simpler, “We’re excited to see everyone at this adult party.” The one thing you don’t want to say is “No children” or “Children not allowed,” as that has more of a negative and offensive connotation.
How do you make it so people don’t go into certain areas of the house? Keep doors closed to rooms that are not being used for the party. To prevent people from going up or downstairs, place a chair or stool in front of the steps and brighten it up with a vase of flowers. If you think guests may wander around in an effort to find the restroom, print or draw a cute sign with an arrow towards the restrooms and place it in a picture frame to divert guests in the right direction.
Is it rude to ask people to take their shoes off? This one is very triggering for some people, but etiquette rules say that it is, in fact, rude to ask your guests to take their shoes off.  So, if you don’t want people walking in their shoes in your home, cocktail party etiquette would suggest not hosting a party. Or take your party outdoors if you’re concerned about the possibility of dirt and germs coming into your home from guests’ shoes. A good cleaning the next day will erase any little remnants from your guests’ shoes, but if it truly bothers you or culturally shoes are not allowed in the home, it is probably best to host your party at another venue.
It can be embarrassing and awkward for guests to remove their shoes if they have foot problems or other issues.  Also, it can make guests prone to slipping and falling if they’re walking around on slick floors in socks.

Etiquette for the Guest:

Is it polite to ask the host for a tour of their home? Generally, no, it is not polite to ask for a tour. A person’s home is private, and you should not put your host on the spot. An exception to this would be at a party that is specifically a “housewarming party” which is generally only held for close friends only, and, in that case, the host will typically have the house on display. The other exception would be if you are attending a party at a house of architectural or historic significance. But even then, it might still be considered rude to ask for a tour explicitly. Instead, you could say something like “What a beautiful home! I love the architecture and the interior decor,” and then see if your host offers a tour, which you could then enthusiastically accept.

When I’m invited to a party, do I need to bring a gift? This is on a case-by-case basis. When you SHOULD: 1.) When the party is held in the host’s home, and 2.) When are you attending a party outside of someone’s home in celebration of a guest of honor (birthday party, retirement, 50th anniversary, shower, etc.)? When it’s NOT expected: 1.) When you are attending a party outside of someone’s home, and it is not a celebration for a guest of honor, and 2.) When the party is held in the host’s home, the invitation says, “In lieu of gifts…”

When you should bring a gift, what kind of gift to bring? If you know the host or guest of honor drinks, then a bottle of wine is always a welcome and safe bet. Otherwise, fresh flowers or something for the home, such as a scented candle, are wonderful gifts for any occasion.

What do you do if the party host has a shoes-off policy?  Do you have to follow it?  Etiquette would suggest that you should do as your host requests, but you can certainly tell the host, “I’d really prefer to leave them on if you don’t mind.”  That may not change their mind, but it’s ok to ask.  Many times, you will not know of this policy before you arrive. If you’re worried, I would ask the host about their stance on shoes in the home and plan accordingly.

How important is it to actually RSVP to the party? If the invitation says “RSVP,” it is crucial to respond. The invitation is specifically and explicitly asking you to. If the invitation does not say “RSVP,” then it is not important to respond. If the invitation says “RSVP with regrets only,” then respond only if you cannot make it. If you’re a host asking for RSVP, then be sure to include a “by date” so that you don’t have responses trickling in at the last minute. And as a guest, be sure to follow the “by date.”
If the hostess is really busy, do you have to say goodbye before you leave? If it’s a smaller party, say less than 50 people, yes, you should try to say a quick ‘goodbye’ and, more importantly, a ‘thank you.’ If it’s a large party, say over 50 people, then don’t sweat it if you can’t find the host before leaving. A follow-up text or phone call the next day thanking them will suffice.

Do you have additional Cocktail Party Etiquette tips?  Let me know in the comments below.


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3 Responses

  1. I think it’s extremely rude to wear wear shoes in other people homes if they ask you to remove them. I grew up in a Japanese household and wearing shoes inside the house is part of the culture and considered very rude (and gross). I also live in Hawai’i now and the entire state doesn’t wear shoes inside anyones house- it is considered very rude to do so. If your host asks you to remove them then please be polite!

  2. I’m a bit of a prankster…so the no shoes requirement in the house is an invitation for fun!
    Gather several pairs of socks and rip holes in some of them or pour yellow dye in splotches on them. Put them in a bowl and when guests arrive they have to grab a pair of them…no matter what is wrong with them!
    You can even make it more fun by putting single socks in a bowl and each guest just needs to grab 2, any 2. Part of the mixers would be to invite guests to find their true socks on other guests…they must say…Hi I’m SUSIE Q and I believe you have my sock…then you trade the correct one for one of your mismatched ones!

  3. As someone already pointed out it is a cultural expectation for some that shoes are removed in the home. Also some people just like it. To make a blanket statement that it’s rude, or make a joke about getting new friends because of it, excludes (and may offend) huge populations of people.

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