Daniela Stallinger

Q. How do you keep a guest list (relatively) small without hurting people’s feelings?

A. No one wants to relive junior high and its attendant worries about who’s in and who’s out. But such quandaries inevitably arise when you plan a party for virtually any occasion—whether it’s a birthday, a graduation, a wedding…or a certain Taco Tuesday gathering that comes to mind.

A few months ago, my family and I were visiting our old neighborhood in California, and in honor of the visit my pals Dawn and Stephanie offered to throw a Taco Tuesday fête for us, complete with rice and beans and margaritas, as well as friends and former neighbors.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked, touched.

“It’s not a big deal,” Stephanie said. “We’ll serve takeout.”

“And a lot of tequila,” Dawn added. Only a fool would say no.

To limit prep and cleanup work, I promised to keep the party intimate. I started making the list, being very conservative about my choices. Then my husband threw in some work colleagues. And my three daughters asked if their best friends could come. Each of them, it turns out, has at least a dozen best friends.

By the time Stephanie asked for the final list, I realized that the whole thing had gotten totally out of hand. There wouldn’t be enough blenders in the world to keep up with all the margarita requests. I had to reduce the number of guests. But how could I do that without making anyone feel excluded or disappointed?

That was a tall order indeed. I hoped to achieve it by crafting the guest list in a thoughtful and clever way. Here’s what I did: I grouped all the names into clusters, such as “neighbors,” “work friends,” and “children’s friends.” I had a total of seven clusters. Then I made a key decision. If I invited one person from a cluster, I had to invite everyone from that group, so no one would feel left out.

Next I looked at how the clusters overlapped, like a Venn diagram, with other potential guests. Since those “connections” might hear there was going to be a party (via a Facebook status update, say), I added them to the list. Then I picked just three of the seven clusters to invite, saving the rest—which fortunately had no overlaps—for a future visit.

In case a few of the people who weren’t included learned of the event and inquired about it, I practiced a response. It consisted of blaming the venue or the budget. (This could probably work for most weddings and birthday parties held at restaurants.) I planned to say, “The affair was small due to the size of the room” or “The budget limited us to a small number of people.” However, as it happened, no one ever asked.

The party was a huge success—so much so that Taco Tuesday lasted into Wednesday. There were a lot of leftovers, though. “You know, you could have invited more people,” Stephanie said.

—Michelle Slatalla

Read more advice about your etiquette conundrums, and see our Modern Manners blog.

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