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Tis the Season: Dos and Don’ts of Holiday Party Etiquette

Whether it’s a company bash, a family gathering, or a personal, after-hours shindig, it’s undeniably holiday party season. You might be gearing up for a whole slew of functions, or perhaps just one, but be sure not to leave without considering what behavior is appropriate for each. 

How to Dress
Choosing your attire for holiday parties might be one of the hardest steps in preparation. The most important thing to consider when planning your outfit is who will be there. Will your boss, your CEO, or your in-laws be eyeing you—making silent judgments about whether or not your dress is too short or you’re showing too much cleavage? Does your attire need to be kid- or pet-friendly? Definitely take all these factors into account before leaving the house. 

If your manager will be whipping out her Christian Dior platform peep-toes, then you, too, can let loose a little. Don’t hesitate to ask around and hear about what others are wearing. But in general, you might want to follow a few simple rules:

  • If you’re wondering if it’s too low-cut, too short, or too flashy, it probably is.
  • When in doubt, go with a little black dress.
  • Don’t pair super high stilettos with a mini dress or mini-skirt.
  • Don’t mistake “festive attire” for “costume party.”

Hostess Gifts
Are you going to a party as someone else’s plus one? Or maybe you are heading to your significant other’s parents’ or friend’s soiree. As a gesture of gratitude, you might want to come bearing a small hostess gift. Keep in mind: you’ll want to keep your gift in line with the air of the party. Low-key party? Low-key gift. Fancy-shmancy formal? Sophisticated gift.

Need some classy, tasteful ideas? See below!

1. Nice bottle of wine. You can’t really go wrong with a chardonnay or pinot noir. (Be sure your host drinks alcohol, though.)
2. Lightly scented candle set (make sure the scent is not too invasive—you never know how sensitive your host may be to those sorts of things).
3. Lightly scented soaps or other bath products.
4. Truffles or something else elegantly presented that could potentially be shared at the party.
5. Set of assorted teas, or hot chocolates.
6. Picture frame.
7. Cookbook. (Go hardcover!)
8. Gift basket filled with various gourmet goods. 

Your Plus-One
Choosing an appropriate date to a holiday party is essential. Your date, or guest, is an extension of yourself. You must make sure that they will represent you in the brightest, most positive light possible, especially at an important party. Is he or she respectful? Will they drink too much and become an embarrassment to you? Will they divulge private details of your personal life? Is he or she even a social person and likely to enjoy the event? Can they hold their own in a crowd of unfamiliar faces? Bring someone along who you trust and who will feel comfortable (or comfortable enough) and will have fun in the situation you’re about to force them into. If you’re already attached, you’re lucky! This isn’t likely a problem for you.

Food and Drink
Though the following suggestions may sound like common sense, some always seem to forget the simplest manners in the heat of the moment and excitement. Both eating and drinking should be done in moderation—even at your friend’s holiday party, but especially at company-sponsored ones. The consequences of drinking too much will indeed outweigh the short-term feeling of ease, or the amusement and thrill of being tipsy and doing things you would not otherwise do. You don’t want to be ‘that gal’ who can’t stand stably in her stilettos, or who is making inappropriate comments to the wrong people, or who reveals too much too soon to the in-laws.

Food-wise: To keep in line with your classy manner, you want to avoid taking all the snacks or buffet food in one fell swoop. Sample the offerings, and go back for more if you must once everyone has had a chance to sample, as well.

Bottom line: don’t hover over the food. And don’t linger in front of the open bar. You do want to be invited back next year.

What to Talk About
People love—and want—to talk about themselves. All you have to do is exhibit genuine interest to open the door for them. Ask how and why questions, or use other open-ended lead-ins like “Tell me about … ” and you’ll easily get conversations flowing with just about anyone.

How Long to Stay/When to Leave
Every holiday party is different. Whether you anticipate it will extend into the late evening hours or it’s simply a dinner or cocktail event, stay long enough to make a convincing and genuine appearance. Even if you’re there merely out of obligation, don’t make it seem that way! And if you’re there wholeheartedly, be sure to leave that impression. Don’t stay past the time on the invitation, though. You neither want to overstay your welcome, nor want to be part of the clean-up crew.

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By Anna Hennings for

Updated December 7, 2010