When you get a written or e-mailed invitation, RSVP. Those letters stand for the French Respondez S'il Vous Plait, which means "respond, if you please." It's courteous to let your hosts know for meal planning, seating arrangements, etc.
Arrive 10-15 minutes after the invitation time (but no later). This gives your hosts and/or hostess those last few minutes to "gild the lily." Different parts of the country and different cultures handle time differently, but that's your best bet unless you know otherwise.
Check and see if children are invited. If they aren't, it's not fair to just show up with your kids saying you couldn't get a sitter. The hostess may not have child-proofed her house, or may have sent her own children over to the in-laws, or there may be a troublesome, unfriendly dog in the house.
Don't arrive empty-handed. Bring along a nice little gift with you -- a bottle of wine, a bouquet of flowers, a packet of printed cocktail napkins, a little inspirational book... You can never go wrong when you do something thoughtful. But don't bring food; that's your hosts' province for the evening.
It's always polite to ask "May I bring something?" if it's a dinner party. If they say yes, ask what they'd like you to bring -- meat dish, side, dish, dessert.
Possible items to bring:
Once you're there, offer to help in the kitchen and offer to help with the dishes. You may be told "no," but at least you asked.
My Dad used to tell me "Don't be a bump on a log!" Well, this applies to being a good guest. It's up to you to make it a party. Talk to someone who's alone, mix and mingle, make good conversation, do your part.
Introduce interesting topics of conversation -- good movies you've seen, places you've visited. If you're stuck, ask the other person something -- Do you have children? Did you get away over the [holidays]? Have you read [the latest bestseller]? Where do you work? Any of these questions will get the other person talking about their favorite topic -- them! You'd be the most popular person at the party if that's all you did all night long!
Help in unobtrusive ways. Empty some ash trays, take abandoned dishes to the kitchen, whisk your hosts' kid off to the bathroom, pass around a plate of hot hors d'oeuvres. If you see something that needs doing, quietly do it. Your hostess has her hands full! At one party I gave, a candle caught fire in the den. I appreciated the guest who put it out, removed the tablecloth, cleaned up the mess, and then came and told me!
Don't overstay your welcome, no matter how much you're enjoying yourself. Why? You had a nap, got your nails done, watched the football game. They've been cooking and cleaning for days.
How do you know when it's time to go home? Use your intuition. You may've been told 2 to 5, or just "come around 8," but your host and/or hostess will give off nonverbal signals when it's time for you to go home. They yawn, suddenly get up, start fidgeting and twisting, let the conversation lag, or even start doing the dishes! Get a clue.
Even if it's a large gathering, seek out the host and/or hostess and tell them good bye, and thank them! Send a written thank-you note afterwards. It's just a nice thing to do.
Being a good guest means making a positive contribution to the gathering. And, oh yes, don't forget to have fun, because that's catching, and everyone will appreciate it.
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