Ah, the holidays—the most wonderful and joyous time of the year ... that sometimes isn't. We've all been seated at a dinner table shrouded in awkwardness or, worse, have accidentally thrown a match on a heated family argument, mid-potatoes.
It's all fun and games until someone asks you about your love life in front of a room full of strangers. To help you prepare for all those difficult-to-handle moments, we reached out to modern etiquette coach Maggie Oldham, who just launched an etiquette program at Washington, D.C.'s famed Watergate Hotel. Read on to find out which topics to sidestep, how to seat a former couple, and how to (delicately) tell your friends with kinds that your party is adults-only.
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Should you always bring a gift for the host?
"If the party is in the host/hostess's private home, yes. Great host/hostess gifts include a bottle of wine, scented candle, or a potted Poinsettia," Oldham says. "Avoid fresh cut flowers with no vase—it requires too much work on the hostess to arrange them in a vase. If the party is at a public venue, no. However, an email with a heartfelt thank you—or better yet, a handwritten thank you card—is always an appreciated, classy touch."
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Topics to avoid
"Holiday party conversation should be kept light-hearted and fun. Avoid triggering topics," she suggests. Oldham is of the mind that bipartisan political topics should be avoided altogether, but if you do decide to talk politics and you're among company you don't know well, avoid sarcastic remarks that may be read as antagonizing. "Also, the holidays can be a sensitive time for some people, so avoid asking questions about other's personal situations," Oldham says, like, "'Do you go to your parents' house for the holidays?' The parents may be divorced or deceased."
My friends used to be a couple but they broke up. What do I do?
"A good host always plans a seating chart for a sit-down dinner. In this case, seat the people on the same side of the table but with several guests in between. It will be less awkward when the two are not forced to stare at each other across the table," says Oldham. "If it's not a sit-down dinner, let the two decide where to sit. If you know the couple cannot get along civilly, forgo the invite. Better to have a smaller group than a blowout scene."
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Your guests are getting into a very heated argument
"It is the host's duty to ensure that the party is running smoothly and that guests are enjoying themselves. Therefore, the host should take the responsibility to step in and de-escalate a heated conversation if it looks like the guests are headed in the wrong direction," says Oldham.
How? "To avoid embarrassing the guests in front of others, allow them a moment to de-escalate on their own," says Oldham. "If that's not happening, ask one of the guests for some help in the kitchen or with some other hosting task. For example, 'Dave, could you please help me uncork a bottle of wine in the kitchen please?' Or 'I see some people need a refill on drinks. Jennifer, could you come into the kitchen and help me pour refills?' This physically removes the arguing parties from each other while allowing them an 'out' without embarrassment."
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I really don't want kids at my party
If your friends have children, but you want to keep the event adults-only, "There are a few options for this, mostly revolving around the invitation," says Oldham. "If you're designing an actual paper invitation to be mailed out or even just the image of the invitation to be emailed or texted, it's acceptable to write 'Adults only please' in italics below the RSVP line. If you're sending out an electronic invitation through a website where you can write a message to guests, you could write something clever to indicate that children are not invited, something along the lines of 'We're looking forward to toasting our friends at this party exclusively for the grown-ups.' The one thing you don't want to say is 'No children' or 'Children not allowed' as that has more of a negative and offensive connotation."