A cocktail party primer

Filling your home with your friends and family is a lovely way to celebrate the holidays and a cocktail party is an easy way to gather a large group at one time. Be a memorable host, and a guest who gets invited back, by following these tips.

If you’re just serving cocktails and appetizers the party typically lasts two hours starting no earlier than 5 PM. Close the bar down a half hour after the party ends. If the cocktail party includes a dinner buffet the hours are typically 6 to 9 PM. This is called a “cocktail buffet” or “cocktail supper”.

Guests should always respond to an invitation even if they can’t make it. This is probably hosts biggest pet peeve – people not responding to an invitation. It’s hard to plan a party if you don’t know who is attending. As the guest, if you responded that you would attend, don’t be a no-show. Conversely, if you responded that you couldn’t attend, don’t show up after all. If you want to bring a guest to a cocktail party only do so if you get the host’s permission in advance. If you were invited to a dinner party don’t ask to bring a guest.

Guests should always bring a hostess gift, which is something small like a bottle of wine, some gourmet chocolates, some fragrant soap or perhaps some nice cocktail napkins. Hand the gift to the host or hostess, if possible, if not put it on a table and make sure you have tucked a little note into the gift or wrapping so that the host knows later who it came from.

Hosts, you don’t need to serve or share your hostess gifts. They are a thank you for inviting your guests to your party and are to be enjoyed at your convenience. It is not necessary to send a thank you for a hostess gift. That would be like saying thank you for the thank you. Instead, thank your guest when you receive the item. If you didn’t see the gift until after the party, you could mention it next time you see or talk to the guest.

As host, be sure to have a variety of beverages on hand including non-alcoholic beverages. When your guests arrive, try to greet them as they come in, take their coat and offer them a few beverage options. Rather than saying “What would you like to drink?” say “We have red and white wine, martinis, seltzer and beer. What do you prefer?” As a guest avoid asking for anything that isn’t offered. If your host doesn’t offer choices and says “What would you like to drink?” say, “What are you serving?”

If a guest refuses an alcoholic beverage don’t ask why and don’t try to push them to drink. Never talk about or broadcast someone’s drinking status.

Hosts should try to talk to each guest for at least a few minutes. Then, help them meet other people by introducing them to guests they might have something in common with. Guests should avoid monopolizing a host’s time as there is much to do and many people to converse with. A good guest makes an effort to mingle and introduce themselves to other people.

It’s not necessary to say goodbye to the host if they are occupied. Instead be sure to send a thank you note or at the very least follow up with a phone call the next day.

Happy party going!


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Arden Clise is founder and president of Clise Etiquette. Her love for business etiquette began in previous jobs when she was frequently asked for etiquette, public speaking and business attire advice by executives and board members. The passion for etiquette took hold and compelled Arden to start a consulting business to help others. Read more >>


  1. Donna Carroll on December 18, 2019 at 9:35 am

    If I am bringing an appetizer to a cocktail party, is a hostess gift a must?

  2. Arden on January 1, 2020 at 12:38 pm

    No, if you bring a food item that is essentially your hostess gift. You may bring an additional gift if you want, but it’s not necessary.

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