How To

By Stephanie Ila Silver-Silberstein

There’s an art to being the perfect hostess. Hopefully, you’re more Martha Stewart than the grandmother in “Flowers in the Attic”. But since there are enough glossy paged books out there teaching you how to fold your napkins into swans and make smiley faced pancakes, I figured, this month, I’d transform myself into a modern-day Emily Post and delve into what it means to be the perfect guest.

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Emily Post

1) Don’t be a Dupree: Being a guest in someone’s house can be a great experience if your host provides a cozy, welcoming environment that allows you to be yourself…but within reason. “Yourself” shouldn’t mean walking around in your underwear, throwing towels on the floor or leaving the toilet seat or shower drain in less than desirable condition. Because your host is letting you stay in her house (hopefully) free of charge, find meaningful ways of saying thank you for the hospitality. A gift is always in order, be it in the form of flowers, wine, a box of candy, home-made baked goods or something more long-lasting, like a small vase or a candle. Taking your host out for dinner is also a generous way of showing appreciation but keep in mind your relationship with the host or the financial situation at play (i.e. it is not necessary for you to pick up the tab at your boyfriend’s parents house, but a ‘thank you for dinner’ is an absolute must).

During your stay, keep the compliments flowing, help clear the table, make your bed, and in general, offer to help whenever possible. Also, be prepared with activities to entertain yourself in the event that you’re in a television-less room or your hosts go to sleep at 8pm. A deck of cards, a laptop to play DVD’s, a book or some magazines may be your saving grace in new environments. Even having a hidden stash of your favorite-flavored Pringles might not be the worst idea! And while it may seem like you need to sing for your supper every minute of your stay, giving your hosts some free time to go about their daily routine can actually be the best gift of all. But there’s nothing more classic than a simple handwritten thank you note sent in the mail a few days after your visit thanking your hosts for their fine hospitality (www.katespaperie.com).

2) 30 is more like the new 50: After your 21st, birthdays usually become non-events until you turn 50. Someone sends out an evite, everyone meets at a bar and there’s an unwritten rule that guests are required to buy the birthday boy or girl a drink or two. But as if weddings and having babies weren’t cause enough, we’ve placed major importance on the milestone that is turning 30. A more ‘official’ evite is sent, if not an actual paper invitation, entertainment in the form of photo slideshows and rhyming toasts ensues and the host provides the guests with free drinks and often times, actual food. In turn, a gift for the guest of honor is expected. To determine what’s appropriate, ask mutual friends what they’re bringing or better yet, chip in with another person or a group. You may not spend exactly what you wanted to, but the ‘chip in’ always avoids embarrassment and the recipient is usually happiest with the one big gift than a lot of little ones.

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3) Cover your plate: It used to be that a wedding gift should equal approximately the cost of having you attend. But considering that amount can range from wedding to wedding and it’s not entirely clear what that cost includes exactly (i.e. food, music, flowers…), it’s best to keep gift amounts for all weddings you attend more or less consistent. But inevitably, special circumstances come up…

a) You got married 2 years ago. Your husband’s close friend, who happens to be an investment banker, was single when he got you a $50 vase for your wedding. Now he’s getting married. What do you give? Now, more often than not, your record of the gifts you received is a good reference point when deciding what to give back, but in this case, you and your husband can’t simply double the value of the vase, no matter how much you want to. The same goes for those few random guests at your wedding who never gave you a gift at all (yes, it happens).

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b) You’re in the bridal party, had to spend a fortune on a dress you’ll never wear again, and it’s a destination wedding which means expensive flights and hotel rooms. You’re broke. Now what? The good news (or perhaps a less than desirable option) is that if you’re really that tapped out, you can opt out of being in the wedding party, explain your financial situation to your friend and rely on the ‘one year to give a gift’ rule. However, under ideal circumstances, you give, more or less, the gift you want to give (or are expected to give) regardless of added expenses. There’s definitely something slightly unfair, if not totally illogical about this, but it’s become the norm in most circles. Just keep in mind that what goes around, comes around….eventually.

c) You got your friend something off of her registry, you received the thank you note for said item and later learned your friend returned the registry gifts and bought a couch with the store credit. Should you be offended? Obviously, you are entitled to your opinion, but brides often register for gifts at different price points as a courtesy to people who prefer to buy gifts rather than give money. If you put a lot of time into choosing that fondue set and presented it with a poem about how the couple enjoys fondue and included some gourmet cheeses and fruit, your friend will still appreciate the effort and acknowledge the thought you put into your gift, that is – if she returned it at all.

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4) The basic rule of wine: You can never go wrong with bringing a bottle of wine. Whether it’s to a house party, a BBQ or a religious dinner, unless your host is a known alcoholic, giving a bottle of wine is a nice token of your appreciation for the invitation and a courteous gesture to your hosts. You can get a decent bottle of wine for as little as $6 and if you’re not sure what to get, ask your local liquor store for suggestions, have a copy of “Wine for Dummies” on hand or check out www.bestcellars.com on the Upper East Side for a wide selection of tasty wines for under $15. While it would be great to personally enjoy your good taste, don’t be offended (or annoyed) if your wine goes unopened during your visit. And by no means should you down the entire bottle yourself and leave your hosts wondering just how good that bottle of Shiraz really is. If you’re too creative to go the safe wine route, visit www.peterlugars.com for the perfect steak sauce to bring to a Barbecue!

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5) Baby Boom: I heard somewhere that whenever you visit a friend who has a baby, that a gift, however small, is expected. Even if you bought your new mommy friend a Baby Bjorn off of her www.buybuybaby.com registry, it is still wise to have a supply of books, rattles or small stuffed animals lying around your house in case of a baby visit emergency. I’m not suggesting your neighbor’s baby, whom you see quite regularly, be the recipient of such generosity, but the occasional visit warrants at least a witty bitty wattle – even if the baby can’t even say ‘hi’, let alone the word ‘etiquette’.

Being a guest can sometimes seem more stressful and confusing than being the hostess. Just keep in mind that nine times out of ten, common sense and basic instinct will be your biggest assets. Always err on the side of generosity – there’s nothing worse than showing up empty-handed, even when the invitation said ‘no gifts’. But at the very least, if you RSVP in a timely manner, arrive promptly, be polite and avoid putting a lampshade on your head, there’s a good chance you’ll be invited back again.

For more information and answers to other questions on etiquette, visit www.emilypost.com.

Originally published August 2006
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