8 Entertaining “Rules” on Their Way Out, According to Etiquette Experts

published Apr 23, 2023
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Glasses of rose wine seen during a friendly party of a celebration.
Credit: Yulia Grigoryeva/ Shutterstock

Thinking about getting your dinner party on? Or perhaps throwing a little cocktail soirée? It never hurts to brush up on the “dos and don’ts” of entertaining, but now seems like an especially good time to do so, given that — after a considerable pause — many people are still getting back into the swing of hosting events, large or small. Times change, but have the rules of entertaining also changed? 

We checked in with two people who know a lot about (and have opinions on) what it means to host gracefully and with aplomb. Myka Meier is the founder of Beaumont Etiquette and the author of two best-selling books including Modern Etiquette Made Easy. Catherine Newman was the etiquette columnist for Real Simple for 10 years, and is the author of “What Can I Say?” a social skills guide for young people. Here are their thoughts on what are best practices, and what traditions are best left in the previous century. 

Formal Place Settings and Cutlery

Once upon a time, engaged couples would register for more than one set of dishes and sterling silver flatware. Things are much more streamlined, and less fussy and expensive, now. “It used to be said that the most formal dinners should have polished silver cutlery. There are so many other great materials available now,” says Meier. “Place settings generally have become more simplified. There used to be an exact teacup and coffee cup, but nowadays many establishments use one universal hybrid cup. Same with dessert spoons and teaspoons — they used to be different, but now many people and establishments use them interchangeably.”

Formal Invitation to Follow

While our experts didn’t identify any practice as specifically out-of-date in this category, it was noted that in an age of climate crisis and very nice options for digital invitations that a hard copy invite might not make sense for a relatively informal affair. “My recommendation is [that] the style of invitation you send, and the method by which you send it, should reflect the formality of the event,” says Meier. 

One-Size-Fits-All Menus

Hosts are increasingly aware of, and sensitive to, guests’ unique needs — especially dietary restrictions and allergies. This, of course, is wonderful. Newman, who has experienced the challenge of managing food sensitivities, adds this note: “Either do it really well, or tell people to bring their own food. Half-assing it is the most dangerous.” 

Waiting for Everyone to Eat Together

Traditional manners dictate that a person should wait for everyone at a table to be served before eating. It’s a nice gesture, but Newman advises bringing some flexibility to this rule to avoid good intentions tipping over into rudeness. “You could become this weird judgey presence,” she says. “Go with the flow.” 

Gender-Based Seating Assignments

It’s kind of incredible to think that in some circles “boy-girl-boy” seating was a thing, but it was. Meier offers the custom of men standing when introduced at a table and women remaining seated as another stale, gender-linked tradition. 

But that doesn’t mean that name cards and/or assigned seats are passé. “I still like name cards because they help curate a seating plan, which in turn helps create a great social event if like-minded people are seated next to one another,” says Meier. (Think: less “assigned seating” and romantic set-ups and more, “I think you will really enjoy talking to each other.”)

Not Taking Leftovers Home

Newman reports that over her decade of dispensing advice, this seemingly benign communal meal tradition was the source of much controversy and angst. Namely, is it OK to take home any remainders of the dish you brought? (Another related, provocative question: Is it rude to ask to take leftovers from a dinner party?) How you feel about either is likely cultural, and ultimately, these questions aren’t worth getting upset about, says Newman. “It’s fine to ask for what you want, and to say how you feel about a request,” she says. 

Shoes on at Gatherings

This is a big one, and it’s almost completely reversed from previous guidelines. “Years ago people would always be expected to keep shoes on when arriving at someone’s home,” says Meier. Now, it’s essential to ask what a host’s preference is when you arrive — and be prepared to show your socks/hosiery. 

Old-School Table “Manners”

Can you wear a hat? Is it rude to burp? “I think anything that has to do with bodies and presentation is off-limits (to critique) at this point,” says Newman. A hat might be covering up hair loss; a burp might be a side effect of reflux. “If it doesn’t harm you, assume it’s not rude.”