A Tip for Guests: How to Know When You're Hurting More Than You're Helping
Reading your host's cues—and knowing when to step back rather than step up—is so important.
Whether you're a guest at a formal dinner party or at a friend's house for a casual get-together, it's important to read your host's cues. As much as you might want to jump right into the kitchen to help reduce the tasks on his or her plate, you should also know when to back off and just enjoy being hosted. Having the wherewithal to understand the difference between being helpful and behind a hindrance is so important—and all comes down to clear communication.
"One of the things that tends to annoy most hosts is when a guest wants to get into the kitchen and either help set things up or help clean up," says etiquette expert Elaine Swann. While this may be considered a kind gesture—and it is!—there are many hosts who prefer to do the work their own way, and want their guests to relax and enjoy the event.
The reasons for this are varied, explains Swann. "They may have specific dishes they're putting food in, or maybe they want a certain food to come out at a certain time," she says. And when it comes to the cleanup phase, they may already have a system in place—one that doesn't involve you. "They might have a certain way they like things to be done in their kitchen," Swann adds. As a guest, it's important to listen to, and respect, the host's wishes. "I think it's important for guests to recognize that when you offer to help in some way, if the host declines your offer, then it's proper protocol to just accept their response respectfully, and move on to enjoying the rest of the evening," says Swann. "I think you should offer to help one time, and if the host declines, drop it. Any offers beyond that one time can become annoying."
Can't step away entirely? Instead of offering to contribute something specific, ask your host a general question like, "Is there something I can do to help?" If they say, "Yes, please bring these appetizers out," or, "Place these glasses on the table," follow those specific directions. If they decline, Swann says to simply let it go—return to mingling with your fellow attendees (which is likely what your hostess wants more than anything).