By Susan Dunn, MA, Emotional Intelligence Coach
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 (after checking with partner). It's become a time when some people consider options and make a last minute decision, but you'll score points if you accept or decline when asked. Your hostess wants to know you want to be at her house, not that you're waiting for the best offer.
If you decline, just say you've already made 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 this begins a conversation about your bringing a dessert, probably semi-formal. If a side dish, more like a pot luck. Let the hostess make the suggestion. Many hostesses plan their meal carefully.
Some hostesses these days will ask you to bring something specific. "Could you bring a pecan pie?" The more congenial hostess will say, "Could you bring your world-famous pecan pie? John's been talking about that since last ."
If you're older and find this offensive, of course you can be offended, or go with the times. Just like the fact that you can't count on getting anything traditional like turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy. I'm sure Emeril's touting something dramatic and designer, and that may appear on your holiday table instead of any of the above.
If the hostess doesn't volunteer, inquire about the dress code. If she says "Come casual," unless she specifically mentions jeans, wear business-casual. If it's more formal, it's customary to talk about the men's apparel, such as "Bill's wearing a tie but no coat."
If you're going to have houseguests at the time say, "Well, we'd love to but Alex' folks will be here." This leaves your hostess off the hook in case she simply can't accommodate two more people. She can then say, "Oh, I'm so sorry," and 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.
Manners is about making the other person feel good.
The hostess will 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." It's not polite to say "Go home at ." so that's a way around that.
When the day arrives, it's nice to bring a gift. It shouldn't be food, because this might appear to compete with your hostess. A bottle of wine, a bouquet of flowers, or a box of nice chocolates will do.
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 possible conversation topics. Nice safe ones are: the weather, what their plans are for Christmas, where they're from and what they do (if they're new to you), movies, books, hobbies, the children, recent travel, and light work topics, such as "I bet things are busy this time of year at the dealership."
Etiquette means avoiding topics that would upset people; that is, things that are innately controversial, such as political issues. It's a time to relax and enjoy and get away from the strife. Keep your conversation light and pleasant.
If someone's experienced a recent loss and this is the first time you've seen them, say, "My condolences. This must be a difficult time for you." If they pursue the topic further, you can listen. If not, you can assume they'd prefer to keep their mind off of it, and to enjoy the day.
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 settled in and visited a bit, it's time to ask the hostess if you can do anything to help. Continue spending time with each guest, and if there are kids there, take your turn at entertaining them.
When it's time to be seated, ask the hostess, "Where would you like us to sit?"
Light and pleasant conversation should continue. If you want kudos from the hostess here's what usually happens and here's what you can do about it: as soon as the food is served, conversation ends. Everyone digs in and the silence grows awkward. Be prepared with something like, "Goodness, this dressing is delicious. What do you put in it?" This will get the conversation going again.
At table, be considerate of others. If it's a big table and things are being passed, be sure the salt and pepper get included. Start the gravy several times.
Special tip: 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 - of course a merry one if there are children there. If a really large group, talk to the people on either side of you, and those across from you. You will get cues from the hostess.
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. If you weren't told beforehand, be watching the hostess for cues. Let's say you leave the table and are invited into the living room to sit. Maybe the game's on in which case you're expected to stay till the end. Maybe it's not, and dessert is served then, or after-dinner liqueurs and/or coffee. Then the hostess gets up and starts clearing the table and putting things away. Offer to help, and then 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" signs.
Then you say "Well we need to be going home now," and the host and hostess will protest, but do so anyway, 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.
Last thing to mention - if "the game" is a big deal for you, you'll have to figure out a way to work around 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, you'll have to find out. You can use the phraseology that doesn't hurt anyone's feelings, i.e., "I'd love to but it's really important to George to watch the game at ." Your hostess can then tell you the game is included, or accept your decline.
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.
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