Arriving and gifting, eating and greeting, lending a hand and saying "thanks." (If you think these are no-brainers, think again.)
Illustration: party things
Credit: Edholm Ullenius

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Illustration: party things
Credit: Edholm Ullenius

1 Pick Up a Hostess Gift (Please, Something Other Than Wine)

These ideas are more creative yet can be bought at the grocery store (or printed out just before you walk out the door).

Cool Treat
“Pair a carton of to-die-for ice cream with all the fixings for sundaes—and don’t forget the scoop.”
—Erin L. Lepperd, managing editor of the blog Style Me Pretty

Flowers 2.0
“Show your host that her parties are always a great ‘thyme’ by giving her fresh herbs growing in pretty pots.”
—Carla McDonald, founder of the blog The Salonnière

Morning-after Kit
“Add pancake mix, two mugs, a bag of freshly ground coffee, and a bottle of Advil. Then wrap it in newspaper.”
—Michelle Bachman and Seri Kertzner of the blog Little Miss Party

Digital Memory
“Print out a gift card for Artifact Uprising so the host can make an artsy book to commemorate the evening.” (From $18,
—Carley Knobloch, digital expert

2 Make an Entrance

Be On Time–ish
Never be early. The last thing that she wants is to hear the doorbell when she’s half-dressed, garnishing a tray. Still, that’s no excuse to be fashionably late. “Arrive within 15 minutes of an event’s start,” says Preston Bailey, a New York City event designer. “But when there is a dinner, arrive on time.” If you’re going to be more than an hour late (and it’s not a casual, drop-in sort of party), tell the host in advance.

Bypass the “it’s raining cats and dogs” frown and the “I made four wrong turns” exasperation and instead pause for a moment to greet the host amiably. Sure, you can then make your way directly to the bar—just make a point to say hi to people along the way.

Remove Your Shoes, If Asked
“You always have to be prepared for another person’s house rules,” says Diane Gottsman, the founder of the Protocol School of Texas. Yes, even if you’re sockless and you haven’t gotten a recent pedicure. (Take note for the next time!)

3 Engage in Conversation

Rule No. 1: “Ask open-ended questions so you don’t get a one-word, dead-end answer,” says Patricia Rossi, an etiquette coach in Tampa, Florida. You can bust out these simple queries on anyone, anytime. And if the conversation loses steam, there’s always “Let’s go check out the food.”

“I love your ——— ! Where did you get it?”
It’s the one-two knockout punch of icebreakers, because you’re genuinely complimenting someone while also getting her to talk about herself.

“What are your holiday plans?”
It’s not the most exciting question in the world, but the answer will probably give you an opportunity to ask interesting follow-up questions. (“You’re going skiing? When did you first learn to ski?”)

“What are you reading/listening to/watching these days?”
Ask this instead of the typical “What have you been up to?” which could easily prompt a vague answer, like “Oh, you know. A little bit of this, a little bit of that.”

4 ...But I Don’t Know Anyone

Good for you for showing up. Here’s some help in the mingling department.

Choose a Target
Your safest bet is another lone ranger like yourself. If she returns a smile, great—that’s a universal sign that someone is receptive to chatting with you. Even if she doesn’t, ignore the “don’t talk to me” body language. Probably her arms are crossed or her eyes are glued to her phone because she’s anxious about being alone. As for groups, notes Rossi, look for gatherings of three or more, which tend to be more welcoming than a pair. Or consider hanging out near the bar, says Thomas P. Farley, a.k.a. Mister Manners, an etiquette expert in New York City. “It’s easier to start an off-the-cuff conversation there than breaking into a circle.”

Open With Something Superficial
Before you introduce yourself, offer a simple observation about the evening. “I love the music tonight!” or “The scallops are amazing!” Think of this as an appetizer, a warm-up to a real conversation. Plus, it’s less awkward than a cold introduction and handshake.

Don’t Get Clingy
Congrats if you’ve made a buddy—just don’t monopolize her time all night. “Spend no more than seven minutes on each interaction,” says Farley, who adds that you can certainly return for a follow-up later. But by then you’ll surely have met other people.

5 Make a Graceful Exit

How can I speed up my good-byes? They’re always so dragged out.
Simply thank your host for a great time and tell her you’re sorry you have to run so soon—again, no explanation necessary. And if she says, “What—you’re leaving already?” Post recommends that your response should be a stalwart-yet-sweet “I know. I’m so sorry I can’t stay. I can’t wait to get together again.” Repeat as necessary. The more confident you are about your exit, the less dramatic and drawn-out it will be.

How early is too early to go home?
“Generally you don’t want to be the first to leave and you don’t want to be the last,” says Smith. It’s customary to stay for the cake or the toast if it’s that kind of party. If you must depart before everyone else, expedite the exit process with a preemptive explanation ahead of time. (“We have to head out at 9 P.M. to relieve the babysitter.”) This will avoid the back-and-forth on the way out.

There’s a sudden mass exodus of guests. Have you missed your window to leave?
Maybe, says Rossi: “Stick it out for another 20 or 30 minutes—it’s the decent thing to do.” And definitely do so if it’s a close friend throwing the shindig. “It’s girlfriend code,” says Rossi. “You’re obliged to hang out longer to help the party have staying power, even if there’s only you and three bores left.”

What is “ghosting,” and can you get away with it?
Ghosting is disappearing from a party without a trace. No “see you soon,” no hand wave, no putting a bug in someone else’s ear to tell the host that you had to run and you’re so sorry you couldn’t say good-bye. “This is never OK,” says Post. “You definitely can’t just ‘peace out’ of a party.” But, acknowledges Rossi, this is sometimes the only way to escape. She says, “You can ghost if you are at a large gathering where you won’t be missed and you know that if you say good-bye, the host will nag you to stay for one more drink.”

Have you overstayed your welcome?
It’s time to call it a night when the host starts putting away the liquor, turning on the lights, or turning off the music. And if you find yourself in this situation, don’t apologize about staying too late, says Smith: “Then the host will feel obligated to reply, ‘No, stay!’ Just say thanks and get out.”