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Birthday Party Etiquette: Show Up and Shut Up

Tips from a mom of three on how to act as a proper and gracious guest when you're attending someone else's birthday party or dinner party.

I recently attended a wonderful bar mitzvah. It was stunning. And afterwards, I called my friend (let’s call him “Jonathan”), the gracious host, to tell him. And I couldn’t believe his reaction: “I’m glad I have friends who know how to behave,” he said. He then recounted the litany of faux pas visited upon his family in the days before and during his son’s once-in-a-lifetime milestone.

One cousin had a balky thermostat in her hotel room—and called him instead of the hotel staff to complain.

Girl at party eating cupcakeAnother obnoxious family member would not travel without her dog and insisted on boarding “Princess” at his house while the bar mitzvah was in progress.

Yet another out-of-town relative asked Jonathon’s wife to get him and his lady friend tickets to a show while they were in town.

And an in-law complained that the appetizers and five-course, sit-down meal included nothing she could eat.

“Why can’t people just show up and shut up?” my dear friend asked. “Is that so hard to do?”

Apparently for some people it is.

I’m not sure why in the face of someone else’s birthday party, holiday gathering, baby shower, wedding, graduation party, or first communion, people feel the need to critique the hospitality they’ve been offered.

You pay for a steak dinner at a restaurant and the filet comes to the table medium instead of rare, by all means, send it back. The first act of a high-priced Broadway show leaves you snoring, go ahead and write a snippy Facebook post if you must. Your neighbor’s daughter decides to get married on a farm, complete with hayride, square-dancing and barbecue supper, you have two choices: Put on a prairie skirt and join the fun, or feign another engagement and send your best wishes. You do not have the right to go and complain about the choice of venue, the hay in your shoes, the messy entrée, or the disposable dinnerware.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think the altruistic suck-it-up spirit is disappearing. Whatever happened to “Sit-down and Shut-up”? I know I’m not a mother-in-law yet. I don’t have the family dinner where I desperately want to know when grandkids are coming or what my daughter-in-law is doing with her hair. But I hear these things at the office. And I have to warn all you cranky dinner guests: Keep it to yourselves.

Want to complain about the heat? Go put on a sweater. Thinking about fussing with the cooking? Bring a granola bar. If you’re going to say something—anything—make sure it’s positive.

And whether you’re going to a wedding, a hay-ride, or your 8-year-old’s best friend’s birthday bash, consider these five general rules on party etiquette to keep in mind:

Party Etiquette Tip 1: It’s not about you

The family hosting the celebration wants you to have a good time. However, they are busy and likely a little overwhelmed. Take some responsibility for your own comfort, arrangements, and needs. If you need special accommodations (need, not want) ask when you accept or politely decline the invitation.

Party Etiquette Tip 2: Don’t complain

The traffic, the temperature, the menu, the hour of the event…these are all things the host either can’t control or planned to suit his or her needs. Nobody needs to know how these things affect you (see item one).

Party Etiquette Tip 3: Constructive criticism is not welcome

The fact that, in your opinion, the birthday boy received far too many video games, is not your concern. And I promise that neither his mother, nor his grandfather, nor the dad you barely know from playgroup, is interested in your assessment.

Party Etiquette Tip 4: Offer to help, and then get out of the way

If you can provide real assistance—say, pick up another guest on your way to the party, deliver balloons to the event, or baysit the babies while the big kids celebrate—by all means, do so. If your offer to help isn’t accepted, just smile and say “call if you change your mind” and then back off. Don’t try to insinuate yourself into the production if your help isn’t needed.

Party Etiquette Tip 5: Keep your own counsel.

Whatever you know or think you know about the events leading up to the occasion, keep it to yourself. No need to question why both the step-dad and the biological father, long out of the picture, are both present for their tween’s party. No need to discuss which relatives aren’t speaking to one another, whose mother-in-law feels snubbed, and what groom may have had a “thing” with which bridesmaid. The host can decide whether to share “back-story” with guests.

Most importantly, enjoy yourself! The older I get the more I plan to kick up my heels and embrace the moment. If the glazed salmon arrives cold and I get seated next to the bride’s wise-cracking uncle who says I dance like Elaine Benes from Seinfeld…so be it. I will show up, shut up, and share in the joy of others. It helps me remember what really matters in life.

Jody Gastfriend, mother of three, is vice president of senior care at


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