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Hostess etiquette: The new rules

Sandy Smith is a food writer, editor, recipe developer, and pastry chef. She lives in New York's Mid-Hudson Valley with her awesome family of painfully honest, unfailingly supportive taste-testers.

Hostess 101

As a party hostess, your duties are many -- host the party, plan the party, prepare for the party, decorate for the party, cook for the party and keep the party fun going all night long. Here's a quick guide to the rules of being a hostess. Take a look before your next shindig so everyone has a great time.

Woman at Cocktail Party

Be sensitive to singles

Not everyone has a date to bring to the party, and some folks are more sensitive to their single status than others. Be especially mindful of this when addressing your invitations. For instance, address an invite to a recently single friend as "Jane and Guest (optional)."

None for the Road

Keep an eye on the clock and put away the alcoholic beverages a good hour or two before you anticipate your guests' leaving. Offer plenty of hot coffee, tea and cocoa, and keep the munchies coming. Don't hesitate to speak directly (but tactfully) to a friend you feel may have had too much to imbibe. Better safe than sorry!

Be present and available

This can be hard when you're constantly refilling the buffet table and hustling pigs-in-a-blanket into and out of the oven. A harried hostess makes for uneasy partygoers. If you must be on KP, assign a right-hand gal to mingle on your behalf.

Don't be shy

You may not be the life of the party in other circumstances, but if it's your party, you're responsible for keeping it alive. Make a point of introducing people who may not otherwise know each other. Is it likely that Miss Julie, the church organist, will know Raphael, the guy who sits in the cubicle next to you at work? If not, make sure they make each other's acquaintance.

No one goes hungry on your watch

Keep an eye out for empty plates and clinking ice cubes. Offer to refill drinks as you carry around trays of snacks and work the room, point people to the buffet line -- or better yet, walk them over there, introducing them to each other as you go.

Take the temperature of the room

This doesn't refer to the actual temperature (though that's important too), but the emotional climate. Are people standing around looking grim and pained, or are they smiling and clearly relaxed? If everyone seems a little too uptight for comfort, first check yourself. If you're stressed and hassled, running around with too much to do and having nobody's idea of fun, your guests will pick up on that in a hurry. Take a deep breath, calm yourself down, and start enjoying yourself. Then set about helping your guests remember that they're at a party, for goodness' sake!

Make a point of making small talk

It may not seem like much, but if you know the sports scores of the day, which movie just came out or who's most recently warmed the cushions of Oprah's couch, you're in like Flynn. Go impress your teenage niece with a comment on who said what crazy thing at the Grammys last night, or tell your Uncle Doug that you just knew the Bills would have their day in the sun. Ten minutes invested in a bit of headline news, and you are party magic waiting to happen.

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