The maxim that says guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days is generous to fish and guests. It assumes optimal conditions: refrigeration for the seafood and good manners for the guests. But what if the fish is already a few days old? What if the guests arrive angry, rude, late, and/or drunk? Your patience is more likely to run out within hours, if not minutes.
Over five years of writing a newspaper column about dinner parties, I hosted about 1,000 people in my home. Most were lovely people I was fortunate to spend time with. But there were some guests so troublesome that I couldn’t wait for them to leave.
Such problem guests come in many forms.
There’s the guest who doesn’t like to talk — not about themselves, or you, or current events. Like an improv partner who keeps saying no. If you’re an inquisitive extrovert, you may think that if you ask enough questions, or the right questions, they’ll open up. Don’t try it. If they’ve spent life with their lips sealed, they’re not going to crack on your watch. They’ll only drag down your night.
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Then there’s the guest who turns up drunk (or drinks too much when they get there), the guest who stays too long, the guest who talks only about themselves, the guest who asks the price of every item in your home.
I have suffered through all of these. And while it may seem as if there’s not much you can do about them (without resorting to rudeness yourself, of course), that’s not true. Inviting people into your home does not mean waiving your right to personal boundaries.
Here are some steps you can take to deal with troublesome holiday guests.
When you’ve got two awful guests, pair them up. One of your guests won’t stop talking about how everyone in her office is an idiot? Tell her that you have someone they just have to meet. Then introduce them to the guest who is boring your friends with a blow-by-blow recounting of his trip to Italy. Tell them that they have something in common — they’re both from the same town, they work in the same field, etc. It doesn’t matter. They are two rabid animals that you’ve placed in the same cage to keep everyone else safe.
One of the great things about being a host is that you can ditch any conversation at any time. You have other guests to attend to, a bar to restock, and so on. The downside to this tactic is that you may end up abandoning your friends to a boorish guest.
In a terrible failure of planning, you’ve run out of ice, disposable cups, plates, soda, or some other item that will take at least 30 minutes to run out and get. And, of course, you can’t leave — you’re the host. That’s how you phrase it to the troublesome guest, remembering to convey your gratitude when they volunteer to go to the store and fetch supplies.
Don’t invite them again
This is what most of us do. With a smile on our face, we put up with someone we don’t like. And we never invite them again. It can be much harder with family — but it’s not impossible. A family guest at my wedding was particularly unpleasant. A friend gave me good advice: she asked me to question whether I could ever depend on that person to behave properly in the future, or whether it was reasonable to expect that they would act badly whenever I saw them. That made it easier to cut that guest out of my life for good.
Beware collateral damage
The problem with cutting someone from the guest list is that they may be connected to someone whom you actually want to include. Will people be forced to choose sides? Seriously consider whether excommunicating the person in question ends or merely escalates a conflict. That one weird co-worker who sits on the other side of the office? Probably fine. Your best friend’s spouse? That’s going to come back on you.
Feed and water
If you have a guest who always drinks too much, keep feeding them and keep pouring them water. This won’t fix their behaviour entirely, but it’ll help.
When in doubt, throw them out
If someone is being lecherous, racist, or hostile, or if their behaviour has otherwise taken a turn for the unacceptable, throw them out. Find their coat, gather your two biggest friends, sidle up to the unwanted guest, and quietly tell them that it’s time to leave. This is the worst-case scenario. But even if bouncing them turns into an uncomfortable scene, it’s better than the alternative — letting them stay and ruin everyone else’s night.
End the party
Parties end. Some people have trouble with this concept — particularly holiday hosts, who might throw a party only once a year. But a party doesn’t have to carry on until the last guest chooses to leave. If you’re the host, you’re in control. You can set expectations beforehand by including an end time on the invitation. It may not be a firm rule, like a hotel checkout time. But it signals to guests when you expect things to wrap up. If you set your party’s end time at midnight, that lets people know they shouldn’t arrive at 11:45 p.m. And if your guests remember when closing time is, they’ll begin to say their goodbyes when it approaches. Hosts have the right to tell their guests when the night is over; it’s not rude, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. Just say, “I’m having a great time, but I’ve got to be up at seven for [activity],” and people will understand. They’ll begin to wind down conversations and get their coats (and observant guests may use this cue to help usher troublemakers out the door with them). Be confident in declaring that the party is over, and you’ll have fewer regrettable moments to resent — which means more fond memories to enjoy.