Never arrive on time to a dinner party: Etiquette for the modern world

A buyer’s guide to open house etiquetteTips and tricks to cleaning up after a partyImportant things to do before your guests arrive


When I was a kid, a quiet day could easily transform into a hive of activity as friends dropped in unexpectedly.

By the time I moved out of my parents’ home, the drop-in was dying. Now we schedule everything, from our children’s play dates to quick coffee catch-ups. Gosh, my friends and I even schedule in our phone chats.

I miss the spontaneity of an unscheduled drop-in; the fact that anyone could turn up for a chat at any moment was a little exciting, and the informality of it was somewhat comforting.

The concept seems to have died a quietly scheduled life, but will the drop-in ever be considered fun again?

“No, it’s not OK,” says Anna Musson, etiquette expert at The Good Manners Company. “It’s different now because we have the ability to send someone a quick text before we arrive. This is a courtesy, to allow the host time to whiz around and pick up their laundry from the front room and present their house in the way they’d like.

“A spontaneous drop-in should be reserved for family only.”

So, what else is important to know as a guest in someone else’s home?

Don’t arrive on time to a dinner party

While you might think that arriving on time is a punctual courtesy, it’s actually considered a little rude. “A thoughtful guest will arrive exactly 10 minutes after the start time,” Musson says, “and arriving early is unacceptable; your host may still be getting ready.”

Whatever you do, don’t turn up early to a dinner party. Photo: Trinette Reed Photography

Never arrive empty-handed

Even if your friend says, “Just bring yourself”, you should bring something anyway.

“That old adage of ‘never arrive empty-handed’ definitely still rings true,” says Musson.

But you can’t turn up with just any old thing: a little consideration is required. “It’s important that you bring something thoughtful: it could be something handmade, wine, chocolate or boxed flowers.”

Brought wine? It’s a gift, not for drinking

If you’re about to crack open the bottle of wine you’ve arrived with, think again.

“The idea of bringing a bottle of wine is as a gift to your host,” says Musson. “If it’s a casual evening, it’s OK to assume that it will be opened, but if it’s more formal your host may already have wine planned for the meal and could put your wine aside to have at a later date.”

Don’t clear or wash dishes, this is more disruptive than helpful. Photo: Stocksy

Don’t wash the dishes

Clearing up the dishes might be more disruptive than helpful, although it depends on the situation. “If you are best friends then, yes, definitely help with the washing up, and if you’re staying for a few days then you should help out,” says Musson. “But if you’re just a guest that night for dinner, be led by your host; a good host will clear the table and leave the dishes out of sight rather than clanging around in the kitchen making you feel like you should make a contribution.

“If they are clanging around the kitchen, by all means go in and help them out, but ideally the dishes would be done later or the next day.”

Don’t help yourself to food or drink

If you’re thinking of going into the kitchen to make yourself a cup of tea – don’t. “That’s for family only,” says Musson. “The only exception to that would be if your friend has four children and piles of washing and is struggling; in that type of situation, helping yourself is thoughtful so they don’t have to drop everything to make you feel comfortable.”

Ask if some help is needed

“If you turn up and your host is busy, a thoughtful guest will always ask, ‘What can I do to help’?” says Musson. “It’s a nice gesture.”

Never help yourself to a cup of tea, unless your host has young children and piles of washing. Photo: istock

Ask if your shoes should stay at the door

Shoes on or off? That is the question that we never know the answer to, because everyone has a different preference. It’s OK to ask what’s preferred at the home you’re visiting.

“The onus is on the guest to ask, ‘Would you like me to take my shoes off’?” says Musson. “It’s not for us to decide whether we want to take our shoes off in someone else’s home (even if you’re wearing socks covered in holes), and if the host wants you to then you should graciously do so without making a fuss.”

‘Doggy bags’ are never OK

Even if you’ve contributed a bit of a BYO salad or drinks at a barbecue, you need to leave it behind.

“Some of your drinks will not have been consumed, so you might think you’ll just take it home,” Musson says, “but this is very poor form unless the host is insisting you take something.

“After all, it’s one of the perks of having a party: you get all the leftover food and drink.”