Rob’s Rules: Best Guest Practices

April 13, 2011

RobsRulesBy Rob Schaefer

Recently, I was asked to teach etiquette lessons to college graduates at an event. I was astounded at how unfamiliar this generation is with guest standards. Although they listened attentively, I watched them show a total lack of respect for the host at a function immediately following my presentation. From finding it acceptable to being more than fashionably  late, to failing to follow up with a thank you note, it is no wonder so many people feel uncomfortable in social situations. Has the art of being a polite guest been lost? In my previous article, RSVP Perfect (Fall 2010), I discussed the importance of promptly responding to an invitation and only bringing those listed on the invite. In addition, it is important to remember that it is polite to arrive at an event on time or within 15 minutes of the start time. On the flip side, never show up early unless you have cleared it with the host or hostess. While you may think you are arriving early so that you can help, chances are you will only be in the way as the host is completing the final touches for the event. If you truly want to help, call days in advance and offer assistance early in the week, such as cleaning, running errands or picking up supplies. When you attend a social function in someone’s home, it is a courtesy to present a small hostess gift. Traditionally a bottle of wine or spirits, this could also be flowers, a plant, candle, frame or wine stopper. It is not appropriate to bring a food  item as your gift as you do not want the hosts to feel obliged to serve it if it does not complement the meal they have prepared. However, I often bring a box of scones, croissants or beignets for the host to enjoy the next morning. More than likely, the last thing the hosts will want to do is prepare breakfast after a late night of entertaining, and a tasty treat to accompany their coffee could be just what they need to ease into the new day. As a courtesy, never bring alcohol to a dry event or a home that does not serve alcohol – this places everyone in an awkward position. In addition, find an aspect of the event on which you can offer your host a sincere compliment. This could be anything from their home, to the food and beverages or the décor.

If you are the host, never feel obliged to serve a dish that a guest brings unless it is a potluck. A gracious way to handle this is to say, “How thoughtful! We will enjoy this so much tomorrow for dinner. Thank you for realizing how tired we may be from tonight!” It is the host’s responsibility to provide a coat check, coat rack or other place for outer garments. Even if coats are laid on a bed, someone should take the coats from the guests and place them there. If you allow the guests to do it, make it clear where the coats are to go. When you arrive at an event, take your coat off. Wearing your coat all night is insulting to the hosts as if you are insinuating that they are too cheap to turn up the heat. If there is an attendant taking coats, be sure to tip him at least a couple of dollars upon retrieving your coat. For more information about tipping, read my article Hip to Tip (Winter 2010-11). Other accessories that tend to cause problems are handbags and backpacks. Large designer bags are stylish, but intrusive at events. You are responsible for the items you bring to an event, so plan to carry them with you or check them with the coat check. Your accessories do not belong on cocktail or food tables. It is never acceptable to place your bag on the buffet table while you fill your plate. If the event has seating, leave your bag on your chair before you attempt to carry food and drink. And speaking of buffets… I am appalled at the lack of manners shown by individuals making their way through the buffet line. This is a line that is a means to get food. Furthermore, it is there for all guests as are the serving utensils.

The following are my pet peeves regarding buffets:
• The buffet goes in one direction. It begins where the plates are. Guests look stupid when they go in the wrong direction or skip over items and cut in front of others in line. • In order for everyone to eat in a timely manner, keep personal conversations to a minimum and don’t stop to chat while others are waiting behind you. It is perfectly acceptable to say, “It is so good to see you! Let me set my food down and then we can catch up!”
• Never carry a drink through the buffet line. It is not sanitary to set the glass down on the table where the food is located. And it is inevitable that someone will spill his or her drink in
front of everyone.
• Every food item has its own utensil. Use that utensil only for that food item. Not only do you risk mixing culinary flavors that were not meant to be mixed, you are creating a potentially hazardous, even deadly, situation for those with allergies.
• Used plates, flatware and napkins are NEVER to be set on a buffet table. It is the host’s responsibility to have someone clear these items from your table or provide tray jackets for dirty items. If you don’t know what to do with your used items, simply leave them where they are.
• NEVER eat from food platters or plates with your fingers or nibble as you go through the buffet line. I have had individuals argue that eating a cube of cheese from their plate is not hurting anyone. My response is that the fingers that were just in your mouth are now touching the flatware and serving utensils that everyone else is using. It is NOT hygienic!
A good guest drinks in moderation. Pace yourself. After 26 years of planning, I can tell you that it is best to stick to one type of drink for the evening and never consume more than two drinks before dinner. Remember, strong cocktails and wine DO NOT mix well. Nothing is more pathetic than an amateur drinker. What you do in the privacy of your home is your business. However, drinking too much in public is tasteless, and it can damage your career or hurt others. Think before you drink.
For events where drinking and merriment are encouraged, the host must assume liability for the guests’ behavior. Now, social host laws are very strict. If you put drunks on the road, it may come back to haunt you. Providing shuttles or taxis for your guests is critical if you have a party crowd. Unless you are Brad or Angelina, you most likely will not have your own private restroom at an event. Everyone will be using the same restrooms. NEVER take any type of food or drink into a restroom. Never throw tissue or paper towels on the floor. Don’t douse yourself in cologne or hairspray in an area where others have to breathe. Always wash your hands and be respectful of the comfort of others. If you are hosting an event in your home, be sure the restroom is stocked with toilet tissue and have it readily available. Hand towels, liquid soap, toiletries and a trash receptacle are all necessary for a smooth evening. In addition, burn a lightly scented candle to keep things pleasant. If you are an overnight guest in someone’s home, avoid the 30-minute shower and keep your towels off the floor. At the end of your stay, fold your sheets and place them on the bed so they may be laundered. I have noticed that many young people today fail to use proper titles when addressing others, such as Dr., Mr., Mrs., Ms., or Miss. There appears to be a certain awkwardness when greeting someone with the appropriate title. It is courteous to greet one with confidence, using the appropriate title and following it with a firm handshake. Nothing leaves a worse impression than not using a title or offering a limp handshake. Extend your arm, grasp the other’s hand firmly and give it two strong shakes. While it is certainly the host’s responsibility to mingle with all of the guests, it does not mean you are off the hook. Avoid standing alone or with a group of people you know the whole evening. A good guest mingles throughout the room and introduces himself to everyone. Ask others simple questions and smile. At the end of your conversation, present your business card and ask for one in return. Network! Finally, it appears that writing a thank you note has become an excruciating chore these days. I assure you, it doesn’t need to be. Although the importance of the thank you note has been preached, it is still one of the most overlooked gestures. A verbal thank you or e-mail does not cut it – a handwritten thank you note is mandatory. A simple note that says thank you and offers the host a compliment on an aspect of the event is all it takes. Personally, I like to add how the event made me feel. As citizens, students, parents and employees, we try to follow various social standards – the role of guest is no different.    MM&E

Rob’s Rules for Great Guest Relations!
1. You can never give guests too much information. Provide an itinerary for your event.
2. Respond to invitations promptly.
3. Arrive at an event on time, appropriately dressed and bearing a small hostess gift.
4. Learn how to compliment the host with sincerity.
5. Greet individuals using the proper title.
6. Learn to shake hands properly.
7. Buffet does not equal barbaric – display manners and restraint.
8. Drink in moderation and avoid amateur hour.
9. Be mindful of the comfort and well being of others.
10. Always follow up with a sincere, handwritten thank you note.

This column is meant to provide practical advice, tips and rules of engagement you need in the meeting and event planning industry. If you have a question, whether it’s how to dress, how to address your guests or what to serve as the main course, e-mail Rob at [email protected] Your question might just inspire the topic of his next column! Rob Schaefer is Vice President of Steven Becker Fine Dining in St. Louis.

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