Growing up, my family had a beach house that had a reputation for hosting boisterous meals and a steady, rag-tag stream of houseguests who ranged from the fastidious to the sloppy. After countless dinner parties and scores of overnighters, it eventually became common for my college friends to happily mingle with my parents’ college friends over wine and seafood and pies. Much of what I learned about cooking and entertaining can be traced back to those summers, including this important addition to the realm of guest etiquette that will serve you well: Good guests always offer to clean up—that’s how they get invited back.
While much of the beach house entertaining hosted by my parents was informal, the food was taken very seriously and every evening’s menu was discussed with urgency before 10 a.m. Even “informal” dinner parties usually take a considerable amount of time, planning, and money on the part of your hosts. So how to acknowledge their effort? While L.V. Anderson has already forbade you from showing up early and offering to help cook, assisting with the less glamorous parts of hosting can often be appreciated. Probably the least fun aspect of having people over for dinner is spending an hour cleaning after everyone leaves or waking up with a slight hangover to crusty plates in the sink and wine stained glasses scattered through the living room. Unless you are attending a catered evening complete with a waitstaff, you should actively look for opportunities to lend a hand.
Take cues from your hosts on how much they are hoping to accomplish that evening (tired souls do, sometimes, just prefer to retire and deal with the wreck tomorrow). But if they begin to start cleaning up, this is the time to chime in with offers of assistance. Without making a fuss, jumping up to clear the table, load the dishwasher, scrub pans, or dry dishes is perfectly appropriate. And even the most control freaky chefs can often loosen up once the meal is over: “Cooking is a creative act; cleaning up is just a chore,” says Anderson, who has no qualms about letting guests pitch in with cleaning. Of course, if your host firmly and genuinely turns down your offers, you should back down, but with a little insisting they may be glad to accept the help. Trust me, you host will remember your thoughtfulness when it comes time to make another guest list.
If you are an overnight houseguest, the bar is higher. You should be much more proactive about cleaning up and making your host’s life easier, since your presence is a bit more intrusive on your hosts’ everyday life. You should always promptly take care of any dishes you generate on your own, like cereal bowls and coffee cups. You should put away foldout couches without prompting. If your host encouraged you to “help yourself” to anything in the fridge, you should leave the kitchen the same or better condition than you found it. If they are providing you with home-cooked meals as part of your stay, you should always pitch in after the meal without prompting and be more adamant in your insistence if they rebuff your offer to help.
Following this protocol will not only make you a guest with stellar manners, it will also likely make you a guest that gets invited back to that fun beach house, nice city apartment, or next delightful dinner party. And when you reciprocate and play host yourself, I promise you’ll enjoy your guests’ considerate behavior, in addition to their sparkling personalities.
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