Thanksgiving Day is coming. Will you be the guest? If so, why not brush up on your etiquette?
When you’re invited give an immediate reply. Your hostess wants to know you want to be at her house, not that you’re waiting for the best offer. If you decline, the polite response is “I’m sorry, we’ve already got plans.”
If you accept, ask if you can bring something. Your hostess’ response will give you a clue to the degree of formality to expect. If she says, “No, no, just bring yourself,” you can expect something more formal. If she suggests a side dish, more likely casual or buffet.
If the hostess doesn’t volunteer, inquire about the dress code.
If you’re going to have house guests at the time say, “Well, we’d love to but Alex’ folks will be here.”
If your hostess simply cannot accommodate two more people, she can say, “Oh, I’m so sorry,” and then that’s that. These social amenities are designed to keep us out of trouble. Reasons can hurt feelings. Phrase it so no reason need be given. In other words, don’t say, “May I bring them along?” Etiquette is about making the other person feel good.
The hostess should tell you when to come, i.e., “around noon,” or “2 o’clock.” She may give you an idea of how long you’re expected to stay by saying something like, “Come at 2 and we’ll eat at 3 so you can get back home to watch the game at 5.”
When you arrive, it’s nice to bring a gift. Do not bring food (unless requested) and that might appear
to compete with the hostess. Flowers, wine or a guest soap are safe.
From the minute you arrive, you’re “on.” It’s the responsibility of each person to contribute to making it a festive occasion. This means come armed with a smile, a jovial attitude, and a list of conversation starters. Safe ones are the weather, plans for Christmas, where they work and what they do, movies, books, hobbies, children and recent travel.
Avoid topics that would upset people — things that are innately controversial, such as political issues, and also a litany of your stresses or aches and pains, or even the hard time you had getting there for the afternoon because you’re so busy, or the car wouldn’t start or the dog got out, or your recent surgery. Leave your troubles at the door, and smile. It’s a time to relax and enjoy and get away from the strife. Keep your conversation light and pleasant. In other words, focus on the things we’re all grateful for.
If someone’s experienced a recent loss you can allude to the fact and say “This must be a difficult time for you.” Let them choose whether they want to pursue the topic or not. They may prefer to keep their mind off their loss.
Avoid, on your own part, complaining, war stories, off-color jokes, anything you feel intensely about, nattering on about something that might bore others, getting drunk and inappropriate, and anger. It’s a day of thanksgiving – gratitude – after all.
After you’ve greeted and visited a bit, ask the hostess if there’s anything you can do to help. If not, continue mingling, being sure to spend some time with each guest. If there are kids, take your turn entertaining them.
When it’s time to be seated, ask the hostess “Where would you like us to sit?” unless she indicates.
At table, be considerate of others. If it’s a big table and things are being passed, be sure the salt and pepper get passed around (they go together; they’re twins). Start the side dishes several times, especially the gravy. Usually when people begin eating there’s a lull in the conversation. That’s a good time to say how great the stuffing is or to ask what’s in the salad dressing.
Special alert: at nearly every table, someone is going to be asked to say the blessing. Might it be you? I’d be prepared, if I were you.
At most tables there will be one conversation. If children are present, be sure and include them. If a really large group, talk to the people on either side of you, and across from you. Follow the hostess’ lead.
When everyone’s through eating, look to the hostess for cues. If she starts clearing the table, join in. If she doesn’t, leave everything as is.
After the meal, it’s time to be thinking about going home. Watch the hostess for cues. Let’s say you leave the table and are invited in to the living room to sit. If the game’s on, you’re expected to stay till the end. If it’s not, and dessert is served, or coffee and after-dinner liqueurs and/or coffee, enjoy. If the hostess gets up and starts clearing the table and putting things away, offer to help. When that’s accomplished, it’s time to go home.
If no one gets up and conversation continues, watch the host and hostess for yawns, stretching, or if they let the conversation lapse. These are “get up and go” signals. I can’t tell you how many calls I get from people who hosted the dinner and couldn’t get anyone to go home. Remember, it’s a “work night” for many people. Also your host and hostess have worked hard, and are tired.
When you figure it’s time to go home, say, “Well we need to be going home now.” Expect the host or hostess to protest, but it’s only a formality. Say a nice good-bye with “thank yous” and “you’re on your way.
It’s nice to send a written thank you note in the next day or two. People really appreciate it these days because it’s so rare. Remember don’t overstay your welcome. It’s better to leave them laughing.
Last thing to mention – if the game is a big deal for you, you’ll have to deal with that. I was at one Thanksgiving feast where the television was not turned on, and there were some very unhappy gentlemen there, including the one I was with. So at least consider the possibility and if it’s important to you, find out. Here’s the polite way to do it: “We’d love to come, but it’s really really important to George to watch the game at X:00 p.m.” Your hostess can then tell you the game is included, or say how sorry she is that you can’t come.
In sum, when you’re going as a guest, plan to have a good time and to make a positive contribution. Then you’ll be the consummate Thanksgiving guest. A relaxed, pleasant and helpful attitude can make up for any faux pas you might make, so relax and plan to enjoy yourself.