The New Rules of Guest Etiquette for Digital Holiday Parties

published Dec 10, 2020
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December tends to bring a flurry of holiday gatherings: The traditional office party, perhaps a friend’s annual soiree, maybe a trip to grandma’s for a large family dinner. But 2020 is not like other years, and with the coronavirus pandemic continuing to impact millions of families all over the U.S., health experts are strongly urging people to do their part and avoid in-person gatherings and unnecessary travel.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that people should limit their holiday gatherings to members of their own immediate household, and that the safest way to celebrate with others is to do so virtually. (Hello, Zoom, we meet again.)

Dr. Kristin Dean, Associate Medical Director at Doctor On Demand, tells Apartment Therapy she’s particularly worried about how maintaining a safe distance can be difficult among close family and friends. These issues are less prevalent when you celebrate through a computer screen. “A virtual event allows you to socialize and connect without the risk of spreading the illness to vulnerable members of your family or friends, such as those with underlying health conditions or elderly people,” Dean says.

Within the CDC’s “moderate risk” category for a holiday celebration is a small outdoor gathering, with additional safety measures in place, like social distancing, mask-wearing, and frequent hand washing.

Still, the “gold standard” for any sort of party during the pandemic is a virtual one—and that undoubtedly raises some questions about the rules. Yes, holiday parties have rules, even though most of them are unspoken at this point: Follow the dress code advised by the host; bring a gift; don’t bring your kids if it’s an adult-only party—that sort of thing. But in this new world, do the old rules apply? To find out, we checked in with etiquette expert Elaine Swann, founder of The Swann School of Protocol, who helped answer all our burning questions about the do’s and don’ts for a holiday party, Zoom-style. 

Credit: Apartment Therapy

If you’re hosting… 

The old rule: Plan your invite list based on how your guests might vibe together. 

The new rule: Invite (mostly) the same people you would for an IRL hang.

It’s objectively easier to sit down in front of a laptop than to do any sort of travel for an in-person party, so it can be tempting to expand your guest list to include those long-distance friends and relatives. And while a virtual party might be the perfect option to get together with that former roommate who moved cross-country after college, think twice before inviting everyone in your phone’s contacts. “You don’t necessarily need to invite more people just because the party is virtual,” Swann shares as a reminder. “You don’t want to put a burden on yourself or anyone else by having too many guests.” It’s also worth noting that ensuring everyone’s comfort is key—especially if your best friend’s sense of humor might not go over so well with Great Aunt Ellen. 

Another reason to keep the list small? If there are gifts involved, it’s important to be mindful of various financial situations, especially during a year when so many people have lost jobs. “Rather than making it a bigger gathering just because you can, it might be worth keeping in stride with what you planned from the get-go.”

The old rule: Decide on a dress code that’s right for the mood.

The new rule: Encourage guests to dress up from their living rooms! 

Chances are, a lot of people have spent a lot of time wearing leggings and sweatpants this year. While some might still get dressed in “hard pants” in order to (say it with me now) feel something, the desire to stay cozy and comfy throughout a year of stress and uncertainty is completely understandable. 

That said, there’s something sad and lonely about all those glittery outfits collecting dust in the back of a closet. Even if your holiday party is virtual, consider encouraging your guests to don their best cocktail attire—if for no other reason than it might just feel good. “I would encourage folks to get dressed up and wear something festive to go along with the holiday theme,” Swann agrees. “Although you’re participating in the party from the comfort of your own home, you’re still in the presence of others, so the attire should reflect that.” 

And psst, even if you’re not a big fan of sequined clothing or formal jackets, there’s still ways to encourage festive dress. Consider an ugly sweater party (and make it a DIY project so it’s more sustainable) or just recreate the outfits from the Chrismukkah episode of “The O.C.” Marissa Cooper would approve.

The old rule: Let people mingle as they see fit.

The new rule: Create a structure for the party ahead of time. 

Let’s face it—Zoom fatigue is real, as is screentime burnout in general, so it’s important to make sure any virtual party is well-planned and not too long. “Have your conversation starters ready, know whether you’re going to eat, or make a toast,” Swann advises, noting that hosts should go into the party armed with a structured agenda.

Similarly, it’s helpful to have a plan for ending the conversation shortly before the party is expected to end—especially if you have guests who are known to linger or chat forever. “Hosts should have a means for wrapping up the gathering so guests don’t feel tied to the occasion,” Swann says. “Keep in mind, we can linger a lot longer at an in-person party than a virtual one. So it’s important to be mindful of the amount of time we’re spending with people so they don’t start popping off the Zoom call on their own.”

Credit: Apartment Therapy

If you’re attending…

The old rule: Don’t show up empty-handed.

The new rule: Find a way to thank the host for planning the party.

While throwing a virtual party takes less effort than an in-person one, there’s still plenty of planning and organizing involved. Hosts have to coordinate the date and time, manage the guest list, and prepare conversation starters and activities.

As for what kind of gift to purchase, Swann has some suggestions there too. “Consider ordering some type of dessert or pastry from a local restaurant,” she offers, pointing out that this allows you to support a small business at the same time. Another idea? Just send the host some money through a cashless app. “That’s the one gift we know people will definitely use, and then they can spend it on whatever they want.”

The old rule: If the party is adults-only, make sure you arrange for childcare.

The new rule: Don’t assume the party is kid-friendly just because it’s virtual.

If you’re a parent, you likely wouldn’t bring your children to a holiday party without checking with the host first, so the same goes for a virtual one. Of course, things come up when you’re at home and people are often understanding (kids making unexpected cameos during Zoom meetings is a common WFH occurrence for parents, after all) but it’s still a really good idea to clarify—and then plan accordingly.

“Ask the host if the event is family-friendly,” Swann suggests, pointing out that the topic of conversation or activities might not be appropriate for kids, depending on the host’s plans and overall vibe of the party. It’s also worth remembering that both parents and non-parents might have various reasons to enjoy a kid-free gathering, so it’s beneficial to plan ahead and come up with ways to keep children busy at home for the duration of the party.

The old rule: Find the host to quietly say your goodbyes if you need to duck out before the party’s over.

The new rule: Strategize in advance if you know you’ll be “leaving” early.

It’s entirely OK if you can’t (or just don’t want to) stay online for the entire party. Maybe you have something else to do later, or perhaps you’re just tired of being on Zoom all day for work. Whatever the reason, just be sure to tell the host after accepting the invitation. 

Swann also suggests saying something at the start of the virtual gathering in order to let the other guests know, too. “It’s great to reiterate your plan at the beginning by saying something like ‘Hey, everybody, I’m so glad to join you. Just to let you know, I’ll be hopping off a little early this evening,’” she explains, adding that this way, it’s not as intrusive or abrupt when you eventually do sign off, and will prevent others from following suit or thinking that the party is over. “Then you can just slide right on out when it’s time for you to say your goodbyes.” Add in the always-awkward yet universally accepted “Zoom wave,” and you’re good to go.