How to Avoid the Party Pack
I have an entertaining question for you. (Haha see what I did there? It’s really just a question about entertaining and probably not all that amusing in the least.)
I am 42 years old and have never done any entertaining at home for people who aren’t related to me by blood or marriage. I live in a very nice house ‚Äî have lived there nearly 10 years in fact ‚Äî and decided last year around Christmastime to host an office potluck. I invited the eight people from my office plus spouses. The plan was to put all the food on the dining room table, so I pulled the dining room chairs ‚Äî which number far fewer than the number of guests ‚Äî away from the table and up against the dining room walls. That way, the table was accessible, and some people could sit in there, others could sit in the living room or at the kitchen table or the kitchen bar stools. It was really just party food & not a sit-down type dinner and I have a rather open floor plan between my kitchen and living area.
So people would arrive with food, which they would take to the dining room, which is right next to the front door, AND THEN THEY WOULDN’T LEAVE THE DINING ROOM. We spent the entire evening in the dining room, with most of the guests standing. Try as I might, I couldn’t get anyone to come into the rest of the house. All that money spent on a cleaning service, and no one ever got out of the entry way.
What did I do wrong? What could I have done differently? Should I have removed the dining room chairs altogether ‚Äî hid them in the garage or something? Or were my guests the ones who were etiquette-deficient? Please help, so that I might live to entertain once again.
Ha! Oh. Yes. People like to stay by the food, don’t they? We’ve had the same issue, even though we live in a fairly small space, with most rooms pretty open to the next, like yours, so there are VISIBLE PLACES TO SIT RIGHT OVER THERE. WHY ARE YOU STANDING. If we’re not careful, everybody stays all bunched up in one room — no matter how cramped or awkward it is — and it’s almost invariably where the food is.
I think it’s possibly part of the guests’ collective nervousness: food gives you something to do, something to talk about, something to fiddle with and look busy with, in case of any moment where OMG NOBODY IS TALKING TO ME I BETTER GO GET MORE DIP. It’s also because we naturally like to form herds and packs and it’s very difficult to move herds and packs. So add another role to the hostess’ job description: sheepdog.
Photo by russelljsmith
A few tips for avoiding the Party Pack:
Spread out the watering holes. Set up drinks and barware in the kitchen counter, a cheese plate on the kitchen table, dips and crudite in the living room. Make sure these are the only food options when guests arrive, direct them to each, encourage them to help themselves. Basically, if there’s any space that you hope to actually utilize during the party, make sure there’s some enticement for guests to flock there and feel comfortable that they are in an Official Party Zone Area.
Orchestrate the arrival. When we’re in someone else’s house for the first time, we tend to arrive and…sort of plant ourselves somewhere. Shades of claiming a favorite spot on the carpet in preschool. Seize on this and make sure people start where you ultimately want them to stay for the whole party. For a potluck, take their offerings from them as soon as they arrive and whisk them away to the kitchen. Once a few guests have arrived and made themselves comfortable in the Appetizer / Secondary Eating Area, you can then start setting food out in the dining room. People will (hopefully) be more likely to follow your original plan of loading up plates and then heading back to the butt-groove they’ve already established on your couch. By letting them accompany their dish to the dining room and putting it down, you sometimes encourage a bit of social territory marking, where everybody hovers around their offering.
(Wow. I’ve really turned Fancy Dinner Parties into some kind of nature documentary, haven’t I?)
Get people moving. If you notice people bunching up, have some back-up plans in place to thin the herd. Offer house tours. Offer a viewing of your famous collection of antique military uniform buttons, the new tile in the upstairs bathroom, anything. Ask for a hand getting extra plates from the kitchen and accept multiple volunteers, then encourage a leisurely side conversation once you get there. Force a little self-reliance on your guests by welcoming them to refill their own drinks (you should generally offer to make cocktails for people, but refills of wine and soft drinks can definitely be left up to your guests at a casual party). And if all else fails, load up everything for the after-dinner coffee and dessert onto a tray, march into the living room and announce that it’s ready, then plop your own butt down so people get the hint.
If you don’t want people sitting somewhere, take away allllll of their sitting options. To your credit, it sounds like you nailed the guest list — everybody wanted to stay where they could socialize with everybody, instead of naturally breaking off into a lot of little sub-groups (which can be good, except that you then may stress out that work friends aren’t talking to your friend friends and your husband’s friends don’t like your friends and gaaaaaahhhh). So I’d definitely say you should try again with this crowd, but this time move those dining room chairs into the living room, ensuring that there’s a place for everybody to sit in the same general area. Not all party crowds work like this, and honestly you just never know how things will go sometimes, particularly in a house where you haven’t done a lot of entertaining.
Photo by russelljsmith
We LOVE our dinner parties and have more or less figured out the geography, but not without some trial-and-error, I assure you. Our kitchen seems to be where everybody naturally flocks, so we start off there with wine and finger food, then we move right next door to the dining room for the main event. If we’re doing buffet-style finger food, we do move chairs to the living room (which is right off the dining area) and let everybody wander and mingle. Other times we put the food on our sideboard or kitchen counter and let everybody go ahead sit at the dining room table [with extra leaves put in] and bring chairs in from the kitchen. It’s crowded and not super pretty, but if we’re serving anything that requires knives and forks, people need a surface in front of them and we’ve found that expecting people to spread out between the dining room and kitchen tables always gives a “kiddie table” vibe to the smaller group. Then dessert and coffee are usually served in the living room, with chairs brought over to encourage a nice post-meal conversation.
No lie, though, we throw a LOT more parties in the spring and summer when we can just throw food on the grill and direct people out to the deck, where everybody can stay put or move back and forth into the kitchen and BONUS, I don’t have to vacuum out the couch cushions beforehand.
Keep throwing parties! They are super fun, and I GUARANTEE you that your guests weren’t nearly as aware of the dining-room-cluster as you were. They were doing what felt natural and comfortable for them, which is the entire damn point of being a good entertainer and hostess. Next time you can just make a few tweaks to bend their behavior more towards your will…and your professionally-cleaned living room.
Published March 27, 2009.
Last updated March 27, 2009.