larry-rice_web.jpgOver the years, like many readers, I have attended some stand-out holiday parties, punctuated by engaging conversation, great food and memorable moments.  But for every top notch event that I’ve been invited to, there are several more that I would really rather forget.  So, in this time of annual office parties and neighborhood get-togethers, it is a good idea to take a hard look at just what makes a gathering succeed, and how you can help, whether you are the host, the organizer, or just along for the ride.
The study of etiquette and the examination of social gatherings has been a focus of my professional work.  My research shows there is some common ground for understanding just what constitutes a good get-together.  So, without further ado, here are five tips for a better holiday party:

1. Make the conversation good: When it comes to a successful event, the quality of conversation is key.  Contrary to popular belief, however, good conversation does not just happen.  Instead, it is made.  For hosts, guest list planning and knowledge is essential.  For the guests themselves, a concerted effort must be made to talk and listen. Ever avoided someone at a social gathering because you know once they start talking you’ve pretty much committed to them for the rest of the night?  A good sign that a conversation should come to a cordial end is when one person’s eyes are roaming around the room while the other person is still chatting away. When possible, party throwers should carefully select their invitees in order to create a group of individuals whose interests and personalities complement each other. Hosts should not invite more people than they can meet and greet, and they should try to know the names of all invitees, even spouses or dates. Party goers should consider conversation ideas in advance of arriving at the gathering, and they should also recognize that certain topics, especially those relating to religion, politics and gossip, can lead to uncomfortable arguments and are better left for one-on-one situations. Finally, guests should put their Blackberry devices or cell phones on vibrate, and only take emergency calls.

2. Food matters: Even in these tough economic times, it makes sense to invest in food.  In other words, having good food at a party is not just an option, it is a must for the party itself to prosper.  Ultimately, preparing and serving a good menu does not have to cost an arm and a leg if party throwers engage in some heavy planning and creative thinking up front.  In fact, hosts should spend the bulk of their planning time on creating, coordinating, and carrying out the menu.  They should consider unique hoers d-oeuvres, a variety of offerings, and the individual needs of some guests, such as vegetarians.  In the end, while hosts want their guests to engage in conversation, they don’t want them to be talking about how bad the food is.

3. Be considerate: This one may seem obvious, but a lot of time has passed since our parents taught us manners, and so a refresher is in order.  While it is important to be considerate of the traditions of others, it is absolutely fine to have a Christmas tree or Menorah out during a home holiday party, since it is a personal expression in a personal setting.  What is not fine is to leave guests out in the cold.  Party throwers should make sure they have the door open, and are waiting to greet guests as they arrive.  If they cannot greet guests personally, hosts should have a “second-in-command” greeter in place.  For party goers, being considerate means arriving in a timely fashion, always bringing a token of appreciation, such as a bottle of wine, flowers, or even a card, and keeping good manners on display.

4. Dress for success: Hosts and guests alike should make sure they have the right dress code in mind.  Party organizers should let invitees know what the dress for the party should be – such as casual, business attire, or even themed attire, such as tropical.  Guests should do their part as well, by following the host’s prescription. 

5. Have fun — but not too much fun: At office and home holiday parties, alcohol usually plays a role. When one or two guests drink too much, the experience can affect the mood and outcome of the whole event, and so hosts and guests are advised to pay close attention on this front.  Guests should follow the rule of consuming one or two drinks, which shows moderation. 

Larry Rice, Ed.D., is vice president and dean of academic affairs at Johnson & Wales University’s North Miami Campus. He has conducted training sessions in etiquette for a variety of audiences.