Here’s how you should really act at holiday parties, according to experts

Whether you’re hosting or are a guest to several affairs this holiday season, this is what three local etiquette coaches recommend you know.

people eating at a dinner party
© deagreez /

Come December, the calendar tends to be filled with festive events, ranging from the annual holiday office party to an intimate dinner hosted at your home.

While we look forward to these celebrations, they often cause some anxiety for both the host and the attendees, as there are many unspoken rules that must be followed throughout, whether it’s a potluck with extended family or a city-wide party of 200 people. Plus, if we say the wrong thing or act in an inappropriate way, it’s pretty difficult to come back from that small moment, as it may have a lasting impact on those around you. 

“The most important thing that I think people often forget, is that etiquette is about how we treat others and how others feel when they are around us, not the other way around,” says Kimberly Entrican, founder of The Piedmont Etiquette School in Warrenton, where she teaches courses for youngsters and adults alike on respect, courtesy and genuine kindness. 

To properly prepare you for what’s to come, we chatted with three experts in etiquette—Entrican, director of The Etiquette Institute of Washington Crystal L. Bailey and McLean-based manner professional Rebecca Czarniecki—about essential behavior for those upcoming parties this holiday season. 

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The basics…
KE: No matter the size of the party, it’s definitely important to be careful with how much you drink. You don’t want to make a fool of yourself because even your best of friends will remember that. Also from the very start if you are invited, be sure to RSVP. If the host or hostess has asked you to RSVP by a certain date, honor that. 

This is going to sound silly, but the holiday seasons are always stressful. So remember to take a moment to breathe, especially as the host. Remember, it’s not how we feel around others, it’s how others feel around us. 

CB: The holidays often bring out the best and worst in us. My biggest etiquette tip is to bring kindness and civility even in these moments of chaos. A prime example is having a little parking lot decorum as we complete our holiday shopping. We’re all in a hurry, but don’t mow people over, park over the lines or fight over a parking space. 

As a host, prep as much as you can in advance so your guests can actually enjoy your presence. A host should never spend the entire evening in the kitchen or manning the cocktail bar. Additionally, if you are uncertain of your guest’s dietary restrictions or how to meet them, don’t be afraid to ask. 

RC: One thing I like about general, good, time-tested etiquette is it levels the playing field for guests making everyone feel welcomed at gatherings. Holiday season ushers in a natural comfort, a feeling of joy, excitement and anticipation. Unspoken rules are simple. Be kind. Be aware of others’ feelings and needs. Be attractive and presentable. Smile real smiles.

If you’re the host, keep the party to a certain amount of time. Be relaxed and ready. Serve good food and drinks and have enough so not to run out. Mingle with as many people as possible so all guests feel like they had face time with the host. Remember, you are not a guest but the driving force of the party. 

The conversation…
KE: Some starting ideas at a holiday get-together relate to what movies you’ve seen recently, what books, favorite family tradition. No matter what, you always want to stay away from politics, religion, money and health issues. Because they can be very divisive and during a time that’s meant to bring people together, you don’t want to dive deep into that. We call those danger zones. Discussion is definitely one of the biggest challenges during holiday events. People are very strong with their beliefs, especially with the political environment as it is now. As much as you want to talk about, this isn’t the time. 

CB: One thing that is very important and difficult in our region is avoiding politics during the holidays. Nothing can spoil a holiday party or family dinner quicker than throwing politics in the mix. I use F.O.R.D. as an acronym for safe conversations topics: Family, Occupation, Recreation and Dreams. As host or even as a guest, when someone broaches the topic, be certain to quickly pivot.

Going the extra mile, as a guest and a host…
KE: If you’re invited somewhere and you ask if you can bring anything, and they say no, let it be. Often times, they have a plan for the food and the set up. That being said, it’s usually common practice to bring a thank you gift if you are going to someone’s home. Also, I’m a firm believer in always writing a thank you note. People don’t do this anymore, and even if it’s your family or best friend hosting, it will always feel good. Along with that, no matter the size of the party, it’s really a good idea to try to find the host or hostess and say goodbye. Never just leave, even if it’s a nod from afar. 

CB: My grandmother always says, “Never show up with your arms swinging”. What she simply means is no matter how small, have a gift in your hands for the host. Baked goods, chocolates, ciders and eggnog are perfect host gifts and in abundance this time of year. The important thing to remember is to not bring something that takes the host away from their duties or puts pressure on your host to serve what you have brought. 

RC: I would definitely hire a support staff for home parties. It does not have to be a big staff, but they must be experienced and on the ball—caterers, valet, performers. By doing this service to yourself, it frees you up to be the best entertainer you can be within the realm of guests.

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