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Creating the Guest List

When throwing a party, follow these tips on forming a great guest list.

Creating the Guest List

A party is only as good as its guests, so consider the chemistry of the group you're putting together when you make out your guest list. This exercise is entirely subjective, and every host has a private formula. But here's a list of do's and don'ts to help you learn some general rules.

Say What?

The debate between the Republican real estate broker and the new age existentialist is heating up, and you are worried that others will start taking sides.

What do you say?


If you are giving a party, always be ready with a store of anecdotes or comments about something in the news that will change the subject. If this tactic fails, propose a toast to something or somebody.


  • Think of the party as an opportunity to bring together people who don't know each other but who will probably enjoy meeting one another.
  • Think of the party as an opportunity to bring together old friends who never seem to have enough time to visit with one another.
  • Invite people who will appreciate the invitation and will make an effort to contribute to the success of the party.


  • Invite just one type of person. A room full of lawyers or doctors is almost antithetical to the very idea of a party.
  • Throw in a person or a couple who don't really fit the group just because you owe them a dinner.
  • Invite known adversaries on the theory that it will make the party livelier. It may make the party livelier than you had hoped.

Everybody has his or her own little tricks and preferences when it comes to making up a guest list. My personal formula, for example, always includes ...

  • A banker, because bankers know a little about a lot of industries and can talk about what's going on in the economy.
  • A journalist, because journalists ask great questions.
  • Somebody involved in politics, however tangentially.
  • A restaurateur, because the entire world is interested in dining out and in food.
  • Someone in marketing, because marketers usually have something interesting to say about trends and tastes and what people are buying.

The best guests are those who know how to sing for their supper. They know that guests as well as hosts have a responsibility to contribute to the party. They will encourage and add to conversation. They are positive and cheerful. You can depend on them. An interesting person who loves to talk—even if it's about himself—will amuse a handful of people and get others talking as well.

Understanding Your Motive

The host motivation for the party has a lot to do with the guest list. See if you can find a good motive for yourself:

  • To pay back for invitations you've accepted in the past
  • To reaffirm friendships
  • To show off a new home, painting, furniture, and so on
  • To honor someone
  • To say thank you to people who've helped you with a particular project or problem
  • To get to know new neighbors or colleagues
  • To generate future party invitations for yourself

I know a woman who travels widely and spends at least two weeks in each destination. She gives a cocktail party the first evening she arrives. The next day she waits for invitations that will keep her busy for the rest of her visit.

Excluding Friends

Don't be afraid to tell friends that you are giving a party that doesn't include them. I was pleased to learn, for example, that I was not invited to a cocktail party given by a scientist friend for his colleagues. There would have been, necessarily, a lot of shop talk exclusive to the group and baffling to me. If shop talk is inevitable, the general rule is to invite only those who can participate and/or enjoy it.

Men and Women

Fortunately, we're beyond the days when only an equal number of men and women were invited to parties. It's too much trouble to try to strike an even balance, and you don't want people to have the feeling that they are assigned to someone. Today's career-oriented people are happier flying solo than they are being stuck with trying to amuse some unamusing fellow guest. Of course, you should always try to have a reasonable balance, but don't try to match up people.

Unfortunately, many divorced women and widows are still omitted from guest lists, even in what we like to think of as our enlightened times. It is not only kind but also fair to make an effort to include them. After all, they are no less interesting now than when they were married.

Negative Additions
Mind Your P's and Q's

Guests especially appreciate being invited to parties at times when parties are scarce—Valentine's Day, Thanksgiving, Mother's Day. Never hesitate to entertain at unusual times—a breakfast party might be the best time to catch busy people.

What do you do about the unexpected guest or the last-minute addition?

If you can accommodate the extra person without undue disruption, do so gracefully and as cheerfully as possible.

However, there are situations in which you should refuse to accept the added guest. It may be that adding a seemingly discordant plate or flatware to your perfectly set table would just make you crazy. And you can't just fabricate a seventh Cornish hen when you have planned a party for six.

The refusal should be accomplished with as much grace and good humor as possible to avoid bad feelings. One reputedly excellent hostess used to call on me regularly to attend her seated dinner parties. One day she called to invite me to dinner, and I told her that I had gotten married the month before. “That's terrible,” she said. “What will I do? You can't bring your husband. It will ruin my seating arrangement.”

Happily, I never heard from her again.

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