Ask E.G. Topic: Event Arrival Time

Julie C asks: I'm never quite sure when to show up for an event or party.  You hear the term
"fashionably late" used quite often, but what exactly does that mean, and how late is too late?
E.G. Answers: You aren't alone, Miss Julie! Many people struggle with what time is the right time to make an appearance at an event.  For this question, there isn't one set answer (possibly why so many of us are unsure!).  The appropriate time depends largely on the type of event it is.

The Invitation Says:  Dinner Party
This is an easy one. SHOW UP ON TIME.  Hosting a party can be stressful enough - cleaning, cooking, determining what and when to serve.  Not knowing when guests are going to roll in is not something the host should have to think about.  If you're going to be late, let the host know. Otherwise, try to stick to the start time within 15 minutes or so.  

The Invitation Says: Open House 
 If the event is an open house or something similar, there's more flexibility.  The host isn't expecting everyone to show up exactly when the party starts, but even so, try to avoid showing up too close to the end. Rule of Thumb:  show up within the first 2/3's of the party, leaving at least 1/3 of the party left on the clock. And keep in mind that the yummiest food on the buffet may get snatched up early, so being there toward the beginning is never a bad idea!

The Invitation Says: Cocktail Party
Cocktail parties fall somewhere in between the two.  While the host is not preparing and timing a meal, they are still coordinating hors d'oeuvres, drinks and chit chat.  Try to arrive within 10 -  20 minutes of the invitation.  That will allow the host time to greet each guest as they arrive, take coats, provide drinks and make introductions.

The Invitation Says: Backyard Barbeque 
Barbeques are generally very laid back, with a cook-as-you-want-it kind of atmosphere.  Typically, this means that you have more leeway in arrival time.  Again, try to stick to the 2/3 party rule, making sure there's at least 1/3 of the party left when you arrive.

The Invitation Says: Wedding/ Funeral/ Baby Shower/ Bridal Shower/ Theatre Event/ Graduation/ Surprise Party (Hopefully not all at once.  What would you wear?!)
NEVER COME LATE. Ever.  Barring some form of disaster, there is never a good excuse for arriving past the listed time.  These events are costly, important, and frankly, not about you.  When you arrive late, you pull attention away from the event and/or people being honored.  In fact, I consider these events the exceptions to the Never-Arrive-Early rule (Below).  Due to the high significance of these events, give yourself more time than you think you need to get there, find parking, and find a seat. 

Still Not Sure?
Look for clues in the way you were invited:
Did you receive an invitation by mail, email, phone, social media or in person?
  • If your invite came via the post, you can probably expect the party to be formal.  Few people these days go to the expense of sending invitations through the mail unless they're investing significantly in their event. 
  • If you were invited verbally (phone or in person) or by social media, the atmosphere of the party will most likely be much more laid back, and using the 2/3 rule should have you covered. 
  • An emailed invitation used to fall into the above category with phone calls and social media, but that convention is rapidly changing.  With the expense of the mailing process, an increasing focus on staying "green", and the increasing quality of sites like, some soirees that might once have garnered guests a physical card are now being promoted by online invitations.  Look to additional clues for your hosts gala intentions. 

Look for clues in the wording on the invitation:
  • Drop in and say hello!  "Drop in" is indicative of an open house type of party.  There is no hard arrival time.  Abide by the 2/3 rule. 
  •  Be Our Guest!  OR ...request the pleasure of your company...   Definitely more formal.  Plan to arrive at the stated start time. 
  •  Join us for an evening... Could go either way, but most likely it's a cocktail party type of affair. Not a hard start time, but plan to arrive within 15 - 20 minutes of the stated time.  
There's absolutely nothing wrong with calling or emailing the host and digging for some additional information.  Use it as an opportunity to ask any additional questions you might have: if there's anything that you can bring; or what you should wear.  The conversation doesn't need to be anything more than "I'm so excited about your party! I just wanted  to check in with you about the time you'd like us to arrive.  Also, is there anything I can bring?"

Additional Etiquette

Arriving Early: DON'T DO IT! While being a few minutes early for a job interview or even to a wedding isn't a bad idea, when it comes to most social gatherings, it's more of a hindrance than a help.  The host will most likely be working on the finishing touches (cleaning, cooking, getting dressed) and an early arrival can throw off their timing, forcing them to focus on you rather than the remaining To-Dos.   If you DO wind up in the area a little earlier than you expected, use the time to pick up flowers or a bottle of wine.

When to Leave:  

Most invitations list an End Time.  Use it.  Your hosts have provided food, drink and entertainment for their guests all evening - give them the courtesy of getting their house back when they request it.

If your invitation does NOT have an end time listed, or you were invited verbally, you'll have to look for indications from your host.  Is the host still pouring drinks, sitting with their feet up and having a good old time? Are they protesting when people say that they should  go?  Then you're probably safe to stay a little longer.  On the other hand, is your host picking up dishes, moving things into the kitchen or standing up by the door?  Have they moved your coat and purse onto the lawn and are they now pointing in the direction of your car, with their keys hanging off of their finger and tears in their eyes?   It might be time to go.

Helping with Set Up or Clean Up: Offer your services, but don't insist upon it. 

Your host may be eternally grateful for a spare set of hands to pour drinks, light candles or pass plates. But they also may not want to have to expend extra energy on answering the "What can I do?!" question twenty times.

Likewise, having a friend discretely pick up empty glasses, wash a few dishes or throw away trash while they gather coats and purses and say their goodbyes can be a tremendously helpful, but some hosts feel very awkward if someone sees "behind the curtain" so to speak.  In addition, it may be their intent to simply shove everyone out the door, collapse in bed and leave the mess for the morning. Your well-meaning presence may just delay their well-deserved respite!

There are two different theories to the expression "fashionably late." Both date from the 19th century.  

The first suggests that the phrase refers to a time when it was fashionable to begin social functions later in the evening.  In particular this would have pertained to the upper class who didn't have the need to be up early as the working class did.

The other proposed etymology is the more common meaning in current society.  Arriving at a party late is meant to communicate that the guest has too many social engagements to be able to arrive on time.  

Upon inspection, both meanings are somewhat repugnant and insulting.  Instead, try to keep your intentions true to the host's best interest and the intent of the party.  When your only goal is to enjoy the company of friends and your only sentiment is one of gratitude and enjoyment you will rarely find yourself out of fashion.

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