9 Solutions to Awkward Entertaining Moments

Real Simple's modern manners columnist Catherine Newman, etiquette expert and author of the parenting memoir Waiting for Birdy, offers a primer on being a gracious host and a good guest.

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Photo by Rob Thomas / Getty Images

My mother is turning 50 this year, and I want to throw her a surprise party. Unfortunately I am a broke college student who can’t really afford the dream party she deserves. Would it be inappropriate for me to ask her friends to send money to fund the party in lieu of gifts? Or should I ask my grandmother to help? Or should I simplify the party so that fewer costs accumulate? P.S. Is a cash bar always tacky? — A. S.



Think about it from your mother’s perspective for one second: Her lovely daughter wants to throw her a dream party! Can you imagine how happy she’ll be? Just the fact of your wanting this—to say nothing of the party itself. So treat the details as the icing on the cake, because that’s what they are. The only thing to avoid is anything that would add stress, rather than fun, to your mother’s experience. Asking her friends for money might trouble her if she finds out about it, so skip that. Likewise, if a cash bar would make her cringe, skip that, too. If your grandmother has the resources to help easily, perfect: Your mother’s own mother and daughter in celebratory cahoots sounds like the best of all possible worlds. But if it would be financially hard on your grandmother? Then don't ask, and, yes, simplify. See if someone can volunteer her home; ask guests to bring wine or a dish to share; and know that your mom is going to be thrilled to have such a thoughtful child and a loving group of friends. That’s what she’ll remember about turning 50.


Recently I have been invited over several times by a friend for what is posed as an impromptu party, only to find out on arrival that it is a product-pitch party. I feel like I’m being tricked into attending. I love my friend, but I find myself hesitating to accept her invitations, fearing it will be yet another one of these parties. How do I find out before I commit without sounding rude? — A. M.

Tell your friend what you told me—that you love her and love spending time with her but really don't have the availability or the budget to attend pitch parties. “I know you’re trying to sell the cookware and the makeup, and I am totally cheering for you. But I don’t want to buy any. Would you please let me know ahead of time if you’re inviting me for a party party or a pitch party? I’m reluctant to use up an evening with you when you might be too busy to socialize.” Will it be awkward? Maybe. But it probably won’t be news to your friend that some people are interested in her companionship, but not in the probiotics and the bread mix. Plus, she will get the message that honesty is the best policy—and it almost always Is.


In my mind, BYOB means bring as much as I—or my husband and I—will be drinking. But I’ve noticed recently that it is now a looser term meaning, “Bring enough to share.” Am I a Scrooge for showing up with one bottle of beer (or the like) that I plan on consuming instead of a six-pack to share with everyone at the party? — M. H.

You’re right that it’s a confusing expression, and you definitely don’t need to spring for the Dom Pérignon, but I would never bring less than a six-pack of beer or a full bottle of wine to a party. (I’m trying to imagine what the wine version of a single beer would be. A to-go cup?) The host is creating a festive and convivial atmosphere, and your generosity of spirit, rather than a letter-of-the-law interpretation of BYOB, is the best way to help foster that. Plus, your host has done the work of providing the meal and the hospitality. Your contribution is the least you can do to help offset the expense. And if they should end up with enough leftover booze for the next party? Fantastic! (In my friends group, we call this the “wine tax.”) That said, if money is tight, then show up with whatever you can—or empty-handed and apologetic: “I’m so sorry not to have brought something,” you can tell your host. “But I’m so happy to be here.” Then help yourself to a drink; other folks will be glad to share.


Is it rude to ask a hostess who else is invited to a party? P.F.

This is a case where timing is everything. It is indeed rude to ask who else is invited before RSVPing. That's like kids in the old commercial asking what's for dinner before agreeing to stay. (Stove Top stuffing!) You don't want your response to seem conditional. But if you've already given an enthusiastic yes? By all means. "I'd love to come. Who else am I going to get to see?" is how I phrase it. (I'm the kind of person who wants to know more about everything.) If, however, there's a specific issue at hand—you're worried about partying with your boss, say, or you're avoiding your ex—then it's OK to feel it out with your host before accepting the invitation: "I don't want to make your party awkward. Do you know if my ex is going to be there? If he is, I'll probably sit this one out." It's not your host's job to tailor the party to your circumstances, but it is your job to take care of yourself.


I hosted a party, and a guest got red wine all over her white pants due to a cracked wineglass. What should I do now that the party is over?S.C.

Accidents happen. Like I say to my kids (and try to practice myself): It's not what you do wrong; it's what you do next. Luckily, they're just pants. I assume you've already apologized for the mishap and confirmed the integrity of your other glasses. Next, check in with your guest and see if she's had any luck getting the stain out. (A spray-on product such as Wine Away might help, by the way.) If not, offer to pay her dry-cleaning bill. Assuming that the pants aren't made of mink or alligator, this should be fairly straightforward. And ideally she'll be left not with a burgundy souvenir but with happy memories of your graciousness.


I have a friend who regularly shows up unannounced with her dog. I am a mother of three small children and have two cats and one dog. My dog is old, and another dog stresses her out. Whenever my friend shows up, I have to lock up my animals and watch my children closely so they don't pull on her dog, who is blind. She tells me not to worry about it, even though I have told her that I remove my animals for the safety of her dog. Another friend recently showed up with her large dog and was offended when I told her we didn't have room in our home. I feel like this is a trend. Can you please give me some guidance? S.P.

Your menagerie is young, old, and varied in challenging ways. I would go with transparency here, so that these exhausting visits don't sap your remaining energy. Tell the first friend that she can't bring her dog over anymore, apologize for the inconvenience, and clarify that it's not about the safety of her dog but about the stress to your own. Explaining that it's an actual problem for your pet, not merely a potential one for hers, cancels out her insistence that she's not concerned. This goes for the other friend as well. Explain that the issue is not space or size but your dog's anxiety level (and your own, if you want to be more completely confessional). If you like, you can suggest an alternative plan, like meeting at a dog park or going for a walk with the dogs and the kids. Ideally, as a fellow dog owner, she will understand. But if she doesn't, and these new guidelines curtail the troublesome visits? That might not be so bad, either.


How do you politely ask guests not to use your nice, decorative bathroom towels when there are other hand towels put out to use? They don't seem to get it. — L.B.

Well, you can't laminate them. And while it may seem obvious to you that certain towels are off limits, I'll admit that I wasn't entirely familiar with the idea—and perhaps I'm not alone. I get slapping your children's muddy hands away from them or rolling your eyes when your husband grabs one to wipe up spaghetti sauce. But dinner guests are probably going to assume that a towel hanging in a bathroom is there to be used. So I'm going to invoke one of my most basic etiquette rules—the one I use for dropped wineglasses and busted cane chair seats—and it's this: People are more important than stuff. You can't chide your guests or proscribe their hand drying. The only solution is to hide the towels away or toss them in the laundry every now and then.


I would like some clarification on potluck rules. Can the guest take home what is left over of her own dish? At a recent potluck, the hostess asked to keep all the leftover food. She said she was hosting another party and would like to have it for that. Is that appropriate? When you've been asked to bring wine and it hasn't been opened, can you take it back home? — H. P.

Potlucks do not seem to be governed by traditional rules of etiquette. The latest edition of Emily Post's Etiquette has this to say: "There is no rule regarding who gets the leftovers, so work it out with the host." Given the communal nature of such events, I love this willy-nilly solution to the problem. Is it strange that your host asked to keep the leftovers? Maybe, but, in my opinion, delightfully so. You might even be flattered by the request. We've hosted potlucks where we've begged friends to leave nothing behind and others where we've asked to keep that nice piece of Humboldt Fog. Mostly we just feel lucky to spend the time with friends—and that nobody needed to cook the entire meal. As for the wine, leave it. Even in the case of a potluck, and even when you've been asked to bring it, you should go by the traditional dinner-party rule: Consider it a gift to the hosts in exchange for their generosity.


To celebrate my recent birthday, I hosted a party at a local restaurant. Because of limited space, I couldn't invite as many guests as I wanted to. Unfortunately, an acquaintance of mine who wasn't on the guest list found out about the event. (She was at the restaurant and saw the party in progress.) Since that night, I have seen this person a number of times, and sometimes she seems angry with me. How do I let her know that I'm sorry that I couldn't invite her? — Name withheld by request

Clearing the air can be awkward in the moment, but if your friend has hurt feelings, your acknowledgment will mean so much to her. Of course, there's also a possibility that your interpretation could be wrong: Maybe your acquaintance hasn't given your party a second thought. She could be dealing with something stressful at home or at work that's unrelated to you.

Either way, you'll never know what's going on unless you approach her directly. (This means not following my husband's advice: "Just backdate an invitation and put some crossed-out ZIP codes on it.") The next time you see her, say, "I've been wanting to tell you that I'm sorry I couldn't include you in that party. I had to drastically limit the guest list." Then, if you want to show this person that she remains important to you, extend an invitation of another sort: Ask her if she is free to catch up over coffee or lunch. Chances are she'll be gratified that you made the gesture.


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