person preparing for a party by riding a zamboni-esque machine that cooks a turkey, dusts, mops the floor, and blow dries hair
Illustration by Hunter French
Identity

How to Be Good at Having People Over

If you're thinking about safe/fun gatherings with your pod as the holidays approach, here are some things to keep in mind.
October 29, 2020, 11:30am
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"Happy" "Holidays" 2020 is a series about feeling connected and vaguely festive during the coronavirus pandemic.

Hosting—whether it’s a house party in “normal” times, or a teeny Friendsgiving with only your pod this year—is often stressful, especially if you’re fairly new to it, or just never quiiiite feel like you’re doing things the “right” way. It can be difficult to know what exactly you should care about most (having 15 different appetizer options? Refilling drinks? Making sure people mingle? Acquiring matching chairs?), and to strike the balance between overly fussy and carefree to the point of irritating.

Given that many of our meeting spaces have been taken away by the pandemic, you might be inviting more people over to your home than you have before (hopefully cautiously, in very small numbers, ideally masked and outside). If you’re thinking a lot about safe/fun gatherings a lot these days (or… any time, really), and want to make sure that whatever you’re planning is going to be both, here are some tips to keep in mind. 

Don’t be a chill host. 

This bit of wisdom comes from Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering, a great book that you should absolutely read in full. “Don’t be a chill host,” means, in essence, that part of your job as a host is to fully embody the role of Person In Charge. Parker suggests running your gathering with “generous authority”—that is, “run with a strong confident hand, but it is run selflessly, for the sake of others.” 

When you host, you’re not just providing space and resources; you are the captain of this ship and responsible for steering the vibes. Not being a chill host means recognizing the need for someone to be in charge at a gathering, and being willing to make decisions or enforce boundaries to ensure everyone has a good time. If you don’t do this when you’re the host, Parker argues, someone else will likely step in to do it for you—but in a way that kind of sucks for the rest of your guests, who don’t actually want to be at a party that ends up effectively being hosted by your sibling’s friend’s drunk partner instead of you. 

Parker cites Alamo Drafthouse kicking talkers/texters out of their theaters as an example of what not being a chill host looks like in practice; they are clear about the rules, and recognize—correctly—that their customers are actually counting on them to enforce said rules. Right now, during this pandemic, not being a chill host might look like telling your friend who keeps pulling their mask down to keep it up over their nose at all times, please. 

“Don’t be a chill host” is a guiding principle I apply to everything from work meetings to parties to long family visits. It doesn’t always come up—it’s not like every party you host is going to require you to eject a drunk racist—but it’s a good phrase to keep in mind as you plan parties and host people. It’s even more important during a pandemic, when any hangout is going to necessitate safety considerations that are actually implemented, like distancing and mask-wearing. (More on those considerations here.)

It’s so easy, in the moment, to tell yourself that communicating expectations is bad, or that asking people to stick to the original plan you all agreed to is rude. “Don’t be a chill host” is a good way to reframe your thinking, and to make your hangout better for everyone. 

Know that it’s better to over-communicate than under-communicate. 

It’s annoying to head to a party and have no idea if anyone you know will be there or whether there will be food, or to pack for a long weekend when you have no idea what activities are on the agenda. Giving people lots of relevant info up front isn’t weird; it’s courteous. 

In The Art of Gathering, Parker writes that all hangouts involve a social contract, and you never want your guests to think, “Hey! I never signed up for this.” So if it’s a dinner party, share what you’re planning to serve a few days in advance. Make a point to tell your buddy that you’ve invited their mortal enemy (but also maybe… do not invite their mortal enemy if you can avoid it). If your family will be staying with you, remind them that you have a hair dryer and extra towels on hand, and send them the link to the outdoor flea market/food truck hub you’re planning on taking them to. 

You can also pre-game your guests, as Parker puts it, by doing light/fun things to set the tone or get them excited: give your event a name, ask people to dress to theme or bring something to share (like a mental list of three things they are grateful for), or let everyone know that you’ve ordered a turkey-shaped ice cream cake for dessert. 

Communication is even more important if you’re hosting anyone from another household in the foreseeable future, when everyone needs to be aligned on safety plans and expectations so there’s no uncertainty or last-minute whining. Pass the full guest list around, so people know who they might be sharing air with (and so they can opt out if they’d rather not hang with that many people). Be up front about what you’re doing to mitigate your own risk in advance of the gathering (getting tested, doing grocery delivery instead of shopping in the store, quarantining, etc.) and be super direct about your expectation that during the event folks will keep 6+ feet apart, only hang out outside, wear masks properly at all times, not come if they have any symptoms (including “allergies”), etc. Make it clear that following the rules isn’t negotiable, and don’t be afraid to ask folks, in really specific terms, what they’ve been doing to mitigate their own risk. 

Beyond the safety consideration that are, reasonably, top of mind right now, here are some evergreen tips that are good to keep in mind whenever you’re hosting:   

  • Divest from Facebook invites if you haven’t already! Paperless Post flyers are my favorite way to invite people to parties, because it’s free and you can send via email or just text the link. 
  • Clean your home before having people over—ideally, the morning of. You may want to save the bathroom and kitchen for last because you’ll likely be using them throughout the day, and don’t want to undo all your hard work.
  • Your place doesn’t have to be perfectly spotless, especially if you’re just hosting close friends or family members, but do clean your kitchen and bathroom, sweep and/or vacuum, make the bed, tidy up common areas, and hide/stash clutter as best you can. And take the garbage out and put a fresh bag in the bin right before your friends are set to arrive. 
  • Be sure your bathroom is well-stocked with extra toilet paper, soap, a hand towel or paper towels, a plunger, and a small trash can.
  • Have plenty of surfaces for people to sit on, and get creative if necessary—move chairs in from other rooms, and borrow from friends/neighbors if you can.
  • Make sure you have an appropriately-sized trash receptacle near where food/drink is taking place, extra trash bags, and something to collect cans/recycling.
  • Let folks know if you have any pets in case they are allergic to or afraid of animals. 
  • If you’re hosting overnight guests, put clean sheets on the bed they’ll be sleeping in, or have enough blankets and extra pillows on hand to make up the couch. And set aside clean towels for them to use when they shower. 
  • If it’s a dinner party (or a long weekend), ask folks about allergies and dietary restrictions in advance, and, if it’s a potluck, share that info with everyone else so they are aware. 
  • Always have some kind of beverage on hand for non-drinkers—chilled water, diet soda, LaCroix, etc.
  • Stock up on snacks—cheese and crackers, pickles, frozen mozzarella sticks or tater tots to pop in the oven at just the right moment—so no one gets hangry or too drunk. A little tip from me to you: Lipton’s French onion dip (which you make by combining the packet of powdered mix with sour cream) is an absolutely foolproof crowd-pleaser. 
  • Don’t attempt to make a ton of new-to-you recipes, especially if you’re doing a dinner party; it’s risky and super stressful, and so often, the payoff just isn’t there. Instead, play your greatest hits (and/or things that you can prepare in advance) and move on with your life! 
  • Related: practice using any newly purchased mission-critical items (like your grill, firepit, or movie projector) a few days in advance. Though your pals will undoubtedly be gracious about unforeseen technical errors, no one wants to sit around as you struggle for 30 minutes and then watch five different YouTube videos just so you can start preparing dinner.
  • Don’t be a hero; take friends up on their “Do you need me to bring anything?” offers. When I’m hosting, I always let someone else buy the ice because it’s the one errand I never have time for the day of, nor do I have room in my freezer to store ice for a week. Other good items to delegate: disposable plates/utensils, extra napkins, and a case or two of LaCroix—basically, anything that’s inexpensive and widely available. It’s also OK to ask to borrow things (like a cooler or a Polaroid camera) from close friends for the event.  
  • Speaking of ice, I once interviewed iconic hostess Amy Sedaris, and she told me that getting “good ice” from the fish market is a surefire way to wow people. 
  • Give your neighbors a heads-up that you’ll be having people over, and thank them for putting up with the noise by sharing the best leftovers/extra booze/unopened party snacks the next day. 
  • Tell people in advance if you’re a shoes-off household!! For crying out loud!!! 
  • Write down your wifi network and password so people can easily connect. (Bonus: rename your guest network something cute/on-theme/easy to type.) 
  • Plug in an extra phone charger or two in a high-traffic area. 
  • Offer to take people’s coats when they arrive, and remember to introduce folks who might not know each other. 
  • If your home has any annoying quirks, make use of little instructional notes—so, things like “the doorbell doesn’t work, so knock hard” or “here’s an illustrated guide to turning on the needlessly complicated shower.” People feel foolish when they can’t figure things like this out and embarrassed about asking for help; do them a favor and get ahead of it. 
  • Know that you don’t have to go super hard when it comes to things like decor, tableware, or food. Some little tricks to keep up your sleeve: unscented votive candles, grocery store flowers (in an empty can or jar vase), string lights, a very inexpensive tablecloth, and boxed brownies + vanilla ice cream. Also know that decanting things—like dumping potato chips into a big bowl before setting them out—will go a long way toward making you look like an expert host. Don’t feel like you have to buy a bunch of fancy serving ware for dinner parties; one easy workaround is to get disposable plates and bowls, and then use your existing dishes as your serving ware. 
  • Remember that you’re hosting your friends and family, not nameless strangers who have super high expectations and who are eager to judge all of your choices. Whenever my mom and I are planning a gathering together, she’ll inevitably tell me that “people want options” as a way to justify adding shrimp cocktail and 10 other superfluous appetizers and desserts to the cart, and I have to be like, “What ‘people’? It’s literally just the six of us???” and then we get into an argument about it! Try to avoid the “people want” trap—remember it’s your loved ones you’re hosting, and plan with them specifically in mind. And also just admit it if you are the one who wants the shrimp cocktail! 
  • Know that someone will always show up two minutes early. This doesn’t mean every last thing has to be ready by 8 p.m. on the dot—it’s fine to chop veggies for an appetizer tray while you chat with your first guests—but don’t put off the messy/dirty/annoying stuff you don’t want other people to see (or doing your hair!!) because you insist that “no one is ever on time for these things.” 
  • Making a playlist should be one of the last things you do; yes, good music is important, but it’s too easy to sink three hours into choosing the exact right songs and then having to rush through tasks like cleaning or grocery shopping or doing your hair. Worst case scenario, you can always put on a readily-available party playlist and—sorry!—no one will really notice or care. 
  • Remember to take lots of pictures of people hanging out and having fun! You might feel a little silly being That Picture Taking Guy, but you and your friends and family are younger and hotter and living better than you probably realize, and are going to wish you had these photos later. Don’t get so caught up in hosting tasks that you forget to to fill your camera roll with evidence of the incredible gathering you threw. 

Rachel Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People. Follow her on Twitter.