April 2014

Being Better: A Better Guest

Author: Kitty Bartell

There’s a story in my family that dates back to the 1930s, about the guest who showed up with a watermelon and stayed for a week at my grandparents’ newly-built cottage. For many summers, friends would arrive unannounced for a “visit,” toting a watermelon, or a trug of berries, or a bottle of gin, settle into the guest room on the lake, and depart only when the weather interfered with the sunbathing, boating, and waterskiing…or when the gin ran out.

With spring and summer beckoning (think The Heritage, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, graduations, weddings, the Fourth of July), plans are being made and guest lists are being written. So put down that watermelon, shelve the bottle of gin, and pay attention, because we’re upping our game to be better guests.

The invitation
Whether by mail, the Internet, carrier pigeon, or in person, an invitation feels like an affirmation. Your friend, relative, business associate, minister, or neighbor believes you would be an asset to their event. As a potential guest you have now accepted a few responsibilities.

The reply
The letters R.S.V.P. on an invitation followed by a phone number are not there so you have a number to call in case you get lost on your way. R.S.V.P. stands for respondez s’il vous plait, meaning please respond. If a response is requested, you are expected to tell the host whether or not you plan to attend.

It is at this point that being a better guest involves breaking out your calendar. If you plan to attend, fill in the date and enter a reminder on the day before the party to secure a host gift (more on this later). Finally, check your calendar daily. Your efforts will be futile without this final step.

Preparation
No, just showing up is not enough. When you make your R.S.V.P. call, leverage it to do a little sleuthing. First, ask what you may bring. If you will be an overnight guest, confirm how long your hosts are planning on you staying, and don’t stay any longer. Finally, ask who else will be joining the party.

Once you know some of the key players, take time to refresh your memory on the names of mates, children, and pets. Recall thoughtful details about when you last met. Remembering that Bitsy is leaving for France in a month to celebrate her 50th birthday will establish you as a most-excellent guest.

If the gathering is going to be filled with new opportunities (a.k.a. strangers), do a little reading before you head out. Get up to speed on the local teams, find a juicy conversation-starting tabloid tidbit, or if you want your business acumen to shine, scan The Wall Street Journal. As fascinating as you find your recent bunion removal, no one else will; so have a few topics of interest in your back pocket.

Finally, you must arrive with a gift. Wine, flowers, and specialty foods all make excellent host gifts. If you know your hosts well, think about what they might enjoy the day after their big event: a kayak rental, a promise to return bright and early the next day to take their dogs to the beach, homemade scones and coffee. Whatever you offer will be appreciated.

The event
Even if Emily Post isn’t your guide, you know the basics: Chew with your mouth closed, drink in moderation, use a coaster… Do a self-check every 30 minutes or so. If you cannot recall anything of interest about the people you have been chatting-up, you should probably give your lips a rest and do a little listening. Also, check your alcohol consumption. Alcohol-induced antics provide some amusing after-party stories, but do you really want to be the main character?

Eat something more than a carrot stick. Guaranteed, your hosts put a lot of thought, effort, and money into the food that is being served; and honestly, other than a health issue, there is no good excuse for being fussy when someone has put on the dog. If you’re having trouble finding something to eat, please, make do.

Finally, embrace one wallflower. Start a conversation or offer a drink to someone who seems to be on the fringe of the fun. If they don’t go for it, it’s okay to let it go, unless your host asks, “Would you mind terribly making sure my chiropractor’s mother is having a good time.” Then do your duty and send Mildred home with a smile on her face.

The follow-up
Unless help has been hired, clean up a bit. It’s not your job to go all Mr. Clean, but put a few plates in the sink and get some bottles in the recycle bin before bidding adieu. If you were an overnight guest, ask your host where to put the sheets and towels, empty your own trash, and wipe down the counter and sink in the bathroom.

Finally, a hand-written thank you will go a long way toward being better, but if you must, go ahead and e-mail your thank you. Skip texting, as 160 characters will not be enough to do the party justice.
Consider this the short-stack of advice on being a better guest. But remember, the better your abilities, the more opportunities you will have to use them. 

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