Modern Etiquette: Tips for a Drama-Free Thanksgiving

by Grace Bonney

Illustration by Anna Emilia

Thanksgiving. Hands down, my favorite holiday of the year. I love Thanksgiving so much because it gives you a chance to celebrate food and family without all the pressure and stress of gift-giving. It’s a time when people pack up their bags, gather around their family and friends and find time to cook together, eat together and share memories and moments of thankfulness with the people they love most. But despite best intentions, any family get together can sometimes breed drama and uncomfortable moments. So rather than obsessing over the ‘proper’ way to set a table (as long as the food, utensils and your loved ones are there, it’s perfect), I thought it would be nice to share tips and advice for making your Thanksgiving as drama-free as possible. From ways to be a great guest to tips for the host, I’ve rounded up ideas that will help everyone enjoy the holiday without arguing over old family issues or who gets the last roll. Here’s to everyone having a safe, happy and healthy Thanksgiving this year. xo, grace

HOSTS: Setting Expectations and Making People Feel Welcome

For me, the best way to avoid any type of drama when entertaining is to set clear “rules” and expectations for guests. This isn’t about ordering people around, but rather about giving them a clear idea of what to expect so everyone can understand how the event will go down. Not only does this ensure people with dietary restrictions can prepare ahead of time, but it lets people know what time to arrive/leave and when to book a babysitter if necessary. We’ve all been to an event that started WAY later than we expected, so it’s nice to know when you can expect to eat or head home- always what you’re expected to bring, if anything.

  • Set the date and time and stick to it (or as closely as possible): Make sure people coming for Thanksgiving know what time to arrive, when they’ll be eating and when events will be over. It makes babysitter booking easy for parents and lets people know how to choose their mode of transportation (ie: taking public transport if they’re coming home during rush-hour)
  • Specify details: Can people bring a guest? Are pets allowed (always a source of drama for my family)? Will TV watching happen (Thanksgiving is prime football time for some)? Make that decision clear so guests can prepare or decide if this event is right for them.
  • Ask for help if you need it: This is probably the best thing you can do to avoid stress. If cooking on your own for a full house makes you panic, tell people how they can help. Suggest dishes they can bring, or ask if a few people would mind clean up or put things away after the meal.

GUESTS: How to Have Fun, Help Out and Enjoy the Holidays

Much like the host’s responsibility, a guest also should be clear with a host if they want things to go as smoothly as possible. Dietary restrictions, plus ones- anything that could throw a host for a loop should be announced ahead of time. In addition, being respectful of the host’s home rules and requests are a given. Aside from common sense behavior rules (don’t chew with your mouth open, etc.), here are some things to keep in mind:

  • RSVP on time: If someone invites you to Thanksgiving, be sure to RSVP as soon as possible so they have time to plan their meal accordingly.
  • Guests: Ask Ahead. If you’re planning to bring a plus one or want to inquire about bringing a friend who doesn’t have anywhere to spend the holiday, ask the host ahead of time so they can prepare or see if they have room. Some hosts prepare special name tags, gifts, etc. for guests, so they’d like the chance to make one- or at the very least prepare enough food- for the additional guests.
  • Helping Out: An old southern adage I always heard growing up was “ask three times”. If someone insists they don’t need help after 3 offers, accept and move on. But if they said “It’s fine, I can handle all the food”, it’s awfully kind to ask again (“That’s so sweet of you, but are you sure I can’t bring a bottle of wine or a side dish?”) and make sure they don’t need help. Sometimes an extra bottle of wine, some bread or an extra side dish is a huge help and people are too shy to ask.
  • Host Gift: It’s not required, but it’s always thoughtful to bring someone a gift for hosting a huge event at their home, especially if you’re not bringing food/wine or another contribution to the meal. Here are some ideas of what to bring.
  • Pay Attention to Time: If you’re running late and stuck in traffic, give your host a call to let them know. Food may need to be delayed to prepare for your arrival, so try to be as close to on time as possible so food doesn’t get cold awaiting your arrival. The same goes for over-staying your welcome. Try not to fall asleep on the couch after everyone has gone- unless you’re spending the night there. In which case, ask if you can help clean up before retiring for a tryptophan-fuled nap.
  • Dress appropriately: Unless someone specifies that super-casual is the name of the game, dress in a way that shows respect for the person who has put so much work into feeding and caring for your group. This isn’t about style or taste so much as wearing things that are family appropriate (no shirts with offensive sayings, etc.) and that suit your host’s needs. For example, if you’re eating at your very conservative grandmother’s home, this isn’t the time to try out your skin-tight red mini dress or wear the. That may be what you’re comfortable in, but you’re a guest in someone’s home with different levels of comfort so try to respect theirs.
  • Help Clean Up: Unless a host force-ably removes you from the kitchen (and some will), it’s polite to help wash up a bit, help clear plates or help get dessert/coffee ready. If there are bags of trash ready to go, take them with you when you leave or head outside for fresh air.
  • Conversation: There are two things to remember at family events. One, avoid controversial topics. Unless you come from a family where political arguments are the norm, avoid topics that are likely to make others feel uncomfortable. Two, engaging in discussion is part of being a polite guest. Unless people are going out of their way to keep your out of conversations (which hopefully isn’t the case), speaking up and answering when someone asks you a question should be a given. It always drove me nuts growing up with relatives would bring friends who sat there silently at the table, not speaking. If you don’t want to be somewhere, don’t go. But if you’re there, be a nice guest and try to make conversation with the people who’ve invited you.
  • Thank Yous: Thanksgiving is no small event to host or cook for, so be sure to follow up with a thank you note or call after the event. It shows people how much their hard work was appreciated- and goes a long way toward getting an invite for next year.

Every family and friend-group has their own traditions, social norms and rules, so be sure to tailor any event guidelines to those needs. No matter what event you’re attending, it always boils down to being kind, respectful and thankful to both the hosts and the guests enjoying the meal with you. Hopefully this year we can all enjoy the holiday without re-hashing old family arguments ;) xo, grace

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  • What a beautiful illustration! Great article too. Unfortunately in the UK we don’t celebrate thanks giving…

  • Grace, thank you for this post. I was surprised you didn’t bring up special dietary considerations – How to ask; how to inform. I think you have mentioned this in a previous etiquette post, but perhaps people haven’t read it and it could be useful to add in here. Happy thanksgiving, one and all.

  • Interesting that you mention parents getting a babysitter… for Thanksgiving? It’s thought of as a family holiday and I would never exclude my children, or ask a babysitter to spend the holiday away from their own family as well.

    • erin

      i have some friends (with kids) that go to multiple thanksgiving events and sometimes leave younger children with a babysitter if they’re going to a thanksgiving dessert party that’s more of a parents-only thing. but i agree, it’s not super common. maybe it’s a nyc thing?


  • As a parent, I truly appreciate it when the host makes it clear if kids are invited, or not. I never want to presume that I should bring my son. We are annually invited to an adults only friends-giving, which is held on a different day than Thanksgiving. It is a wonderful time to spend with our adult friends, and these tips are perfect for that event. thanks!

  • Thanks for writing this. Seriously, for some of us, this post is a reminder of why “not” to do Thanksgiving and how not to feel gulitly about it. For years I would turn up late to my mother’s house (I know, rude) but it made me realize that I did not want to be there… at. all. It wasn’t neceessarily because of the drama (and at times there could be plenty) but it was “the rules” (some of them mentioned above) of Thanksgiving. Rules like only “women” did the cooking AND the clean up AND the fixing of everyone’s plate (even for grown men who couldn’t pry themselves from the den & football). And the troubling thing, this was behavior I watched in my grandmother’s house… being repeated in my mother’s house. It is NOT repeated in my house! So long story short, I enjoy it better when I can stay home by myself. And it is in no way sad… it’s empowering!! I am very happy for those who do the big family gathering, but some of us just can’t anymore.

    • teresa

      i totally hear you. i think people shouldn’t go to to any event they don’t feel comfortable attending- that’s why i think hosts should be clear about the rules/tone of the event. so if it’s not your jam, you can just skip it. it’s better to politely decline than to sit at someone’s home looking upset. sorry to hear about that unequal division of work/cooking being continued…i grew up with something similar and it was frustrating :(


  • Thank you for the post, Grace! I find the “rule” of asking three times fascinating. I was brought up to ask once and take the answer at face value. If someone were to ask me three times in a row about the same thing, I would suspect that that person doesn’t believe or respect me, possibly both. It would certainly be borderline rude. Aren’t manners just amazing?

  • I thought that I would share a basic dinner guest rule. unless you know the host extremely well do not bring them cut flowers. I have made this mistake several times and finally learned my lesson when the hostess put my beautiful flowers in a bucket in the garage because 1) she had bought and arranged her own flowers for the occasion and 2) she was much too busy to find a a vase and arrange them when she was in the middle of cooking and making sure everyone had a drink and hors d’oeurves. so bring a bottle of wine and it is much easier for everyone.

  • I hadn’t heard about asking three times before, but I like it. I was raised that it is rude to show up empty handed, so I generally don’t ask IF i can bring something, I ask WHAT I can bring. If the host is still dismissive, I bring a generous amount of good wine and I don’t care if it ends up on the table or not. I am someone who will always tell guests not to worry about anything (bringing something, cleaning up after, etc), but I really appreciate it when people ignore me and jump in to help.

    I would only add one thing to your list: if you bring something to a dinner party or pot-luck, please try to remember to take your dishes home with you if they are important to you, or bring them in something you don’t mind leaving behind. I’ve had many parties in which I’ve ended up with a pile of dishes that I’m not sure who they belong to, and then it takes effort to get them back to people. I have also thrown away really crappy tupperware that has been left behind because I thought it was disposable, but then the owners called to ask for it back. Inevitably things will get forgotten, but do your best to gather your stuff up. Don’t be that person who says they’ll just stop by for it tomorrow; that means you want me to wash it for you. Then you’ll either forget and it will sit on my counter for weeks, or you will interrupt my lazy morning of eating leftover pie for breakfast in my underwear.

    Oh, and please don’t sneak my dogs any food; despite what they may try and tell you they are not starving, and those table scraps will most likely give them hideous gas later in the evening.

  • What an interesting post- I would never think of Thanksgiving as a babysitter holiday either but as you said it must be a NYC thing although I grew up in Wash. DC and never saw that. Regarding the hostess gift I would have to say that unless you’re bringing wine or food that it definitely is mandatory – it’s called a “bread and butter gift” . And I LOVE the “ask three times” that’s so charming and the trick of course is to ask a little differently each time (a Southern specialty) )not stand there in their face asking the same question over and over .

  • Great post! As someone who hosts for 20+ every year, I would so send this link out to the whole RSVP list, if that wouldn’t be a touch obvious.

    A note on host gifts, wine is not necessarily a safe bet. While I drink socially, my SO and parents do not, not ever. The previous commenter is completely right that cut flowers are a tricky gift, but wine is not necessarily the answer. Truthfully, the one gift that always fits? Ice. We can always use ice. Ideally in some kind of cheap foam cooler so I don’t have to find room in my freezer.

  • A twist on the ‘ask three times’ rule…my Mama always said if someone offered three times, it was ok to accept!! An example of this is if someone offered to buy your lunch, and you declined, but they kept asking, it is ok to accept on the third offer!! :)

  • Great advice, even for regular dinner parties and holiday get-togethers. One of your guest tips (be on time) could be a separate topic for your etiquette series. I have found that people of my generation tend to be late more often than on time, which can be really frustrating. Just a thought!

  • Re: ‘ask three times’ rule – It occurred to me belatedly that this is probably an issue of southern vs. northern politeness. In the north, it’s more typical to express politeness with what you DON’T say and what you DON’T do, rather than explicitly in words.

  • I have a mother in Hospice, and her very thoughtful friends (a couple) are making a Thanksgiving Dinner around her bed. My husband and I are invited, and I am not sure if the invite is
    1. Politically correct gesture (they tolerate me)
    2. We are warm bodies (the more, the merrier)
    3. Doing it for my mother, whom I am not overly fond of
    So, I am dealing with a tight RSVP deadline, and a very weary need to say “yes”, not sure if we will enjoy ourselves, but wanting no regrets. I am leaning on going for a few hours. At a nursing home, this couple didn’t like a comment I made, so they went ice cube. Now, I am invited to TD? Any feedback?

    • Hi EOLTD

      This is a tough question because I don’t think etiquette is most important here. I don’t know your history with your mother, so I think that is what is most important. If she is in hospice and this may be your last holiday together, it may be worth considering spending it with her. But I don’t know what your family history is and it wouldn’t be right for anyone outside of your family to say what’s “right” or “wrong”. End of life situations are much more serious and important than etiquette, so I would listen to your gut on this one. I wouldn’t worry about her friends so much as what feels right to you and your mother as a family.

      Sending love,