Welcome to House Rules, Curbed’s new advice column; first up, our columnist answers your hosting and holiday questions. Other house-related dilemmas? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
With the holidays coming up, we expect extra friends and family tromping through our house. What’s the best way to ask house guests (preferably without having to actually ask) to remove their shoes when they come into our home without coming across as pushy or offensive?
—Clean in San Francisco
There’s nothing pushy or offensive about having house rules! Keeping wet and muddy shoes out of the house certainly makes a lot of sense, and for millions of people in the U.S. and around the world, the idea of wearing street shoes inside is almost unthinkable. (Social media lit up with joyful recognition earlier this year when the kids in the Ali Wong/Randall Park romcom Always Be My Maybe took off their shoes at the front door just to run through the house to the backyard, where they put them back on again.)
But even though it’s fine to ask your guests to leave their shoes at the door, it can still be hard to feel like you’re welcoming them when you’re bossing them around like a TSA agent. The best way to get people to remove their shoes without being asked is to make it obvious that you remove your shoes, and to make it extra easy for them to do so too. At my old apartment I kept a shoe rack by my front door, right next to a bench, a boot jack, and an umbrella stand. Almost all of my guests would arrive, see the shoe rack, notice that I was in my socks or slippers, and either immediately start to take off their shoes or ask me if I wanted them to.
That said, there will always be a few people who don’t pick up on hints, or who just don’t feel festive without their sparkly high heels, or who might be at risk of slipping on wood floors in their stocking feet. For those people, you’ll have to decide whether you want to ask them to remove their shoes anyway, or whether it’s better to make an exception for reasons of hospitality or safety. Depending on your situation, you could apologetically blame your noise-averse downstairs neighbors, your toddler who puts everything they find on the floor into their mouth, or your own lackadaisical vacuuming practices. Or you could just serenely own your policy as a time-honored cultural practice or forgivable eccentricity, and offer to lend them some non-slip shoe covers or comfy athletic slides.
I am a grad student, and hence lacking funds. Is it better to bring homemade gifts or something store-bought to someone’s house, even if it is something small?
—Cash-Strapped in Academe
As a former grad student, I can relate to the challenge of wanting to be a good guest on a tight budget. Luckily, with host gifts, it truly is the thought that counts.
Traditional store-bought options include a bottle of wine or a bouquet of flowers, both of which come in more- and less-expensive versions—but if it’s the end of the month and even the cheapest wine seems out of reach, you could always substitute some seltzer in a wine-type bottle, a chocolate bar for guests to share, or something else small that you think your host would like. (I am weirdly besotted with smoked and pickled fish, and at my most recent dinner party, some grad student friends touched my heart by bringing me a jar of pickled herring.) Homemade presents can be fun too: a batch of cookies, an improvised bouquet of seasonal leaves, a construction-paper decoration based on a holiday craft project you vaguely remember from kindergarten…
But don’t overthink it. If you ask what you can bring and your host says, “Don’t worry about it! Just bring yourself!” there’s a decent chance that they mean it! Gift or no gift, you can still be an excellent guest by enjoying yourself and the people you’re with—and by offering to help with the dishes.
For many years I didn’t drink alcohol at all, and even now I’m very sparing with it. It’s not something I think to lay in for my parties; instead, I’ll often make a fizzy fruit punch and/or get some nice soft drinks, make provisions for tea and coffee drinkers, and so forth. So I find it a bit confronting when guests come armed with beer and wine for themselves and others. It’s not that I don’t want them to enjoy themselves, and I don’t disapprove of drinking in principle or have a blanket ban on alcohol in the house. But it feels weird to me that people are so used to having alcohol at social events that they can’t go one evening without it. Would it be all right for me to ask guests not to bring alcohol with them? Would they stop coming to my parties if I did? Or should I learn to just go with the flow and buy my guests something that they evidently enjoy, even if I don’t?
—Tea-total in Connecticut
It’s your party, and you can make it alcohol-free if you want to! And if your guests aren’t interested in spending time with you without alcohol, you probably don’t want them as guests anyway. Plus, in this age of detoxing and mindfulness, odds are that many of them would welcome some soft-drinks-only evenings. Maybe you’ll become known for your restorative “Dry January” parties where people can find a healthy haven after the excesses of the holiday season.
That said, it might be worth reflecting on the assumptions you’re making about your guests. Although it’s possible that some of them are truly struggling with alcohol dependence, it’s unlikely that most of them are bringing beer and wine to your parties because they are incapable of going a single evening without it. It’s much more likely that they’re bringing it because it’s the default polite thing to bring to a gathering. They’d probably be surprised to learn that you feel confronted by it, or that you see them as “armed” with it like a weapon.
Obviously, in some situations (e.g., if the host is a nondrinking Mormon or Muslim or is in recovery), alcohol at parties is not the default, but in most places and situations, it is. If you are known to be an occasional drinker who doesn’t have religious or recovery-related reasons why you prefer not to preside over events with alcohol, your guests will have no way of knowing what you want unless you tell them. My advice is to tell them what you desire, and give them the benefit of the doubt.
I love hosting meals, but I can always use more tips on how to host meals well as a person who lives alone. It seems hosting is best done with two or more people—one for front of house and one to get things done in the kitchen! What are best practices for doing it with one body? And is it possible to enjoy yourself when you’re the host of the party?
—The One Body Problem in California
Dear One Body,
As a single person who likes to host, I have thought about this topic a lot! It would clearly be convenient to have someone there to wrangle the guests while the other wrangles the meal, but c’est la vie. (The great advantage of being single, of course, is that you never need to worry about wrangling your significant other.)
My main strategy thus far has been to throw the kind of parties where all the work is done in advance. First, I do a basic amount of cleaning and tidying that may include shutting piles of papers inside my messy secretary desk and hiding a bag of laundry in the closet, and then I focus on food. My big Galentine’s Day and December holiday parties are basically just self-serve buffets. I arrange an array of homemade baked goods and store-bought snacks on the dining table and put a bunch of beverages and an ice bucket on the kitchen counter, and I point people toward it all when they arrive. And that’s it. Occasionally I introduce people to each other if they seem like they need it, but most of the time I get to roam and chat and have fun.
For smaller dinner parties, I either serve something simple that I can make ahead of time and bring out all at once (like soup, biscuits, and salad), or I order a melange of takeout from my favorite Tibetan and/or Thai places, making sure to cover a range of dietary needs and preferences. When weather and time permit, I bake dessert in advance, but sometimes I just buy ice cream.
The advantage of this approach is that I really do get to visit with and enjoy my guests, and there’s not much to worry about. The disadvantage is that I never stun my guests with my culinary skills. On the rare occasions I’ve attempted a more ambitious sit-down meal (like the time I made about half the dishes in Nigella’s Christmas cookbook), I’ve always co-hosted with a friend or sister, which is its own unique blend of stress and fun. If you give co-hosting a try, let me know how it goes!
Briallen Hopper is the author of Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions and the co-editor of the online magazine Killing the Buddha. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, New York magazine/the Cut, the Paris Review Daily, the Seattle Star, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. She teaches creative nonfiction at Queens College, CUNY, and lives in Elmhurst, Queens.