The other week, one of my colleagues was headed to an elopement party that allegedly started at noon. She thought she should probably arrive at noon: Though the couple was already married, the party was still essentially a stand-in celebration for a more traditional wedding, and it’s rude to be late to a wedding. Her husband disagreed, intuiting that this party was low-key enough to arrive after the formal gun time. The fight wasn’t worked out, exactly, but between him not being ready to leave for a bit, and a hunt from parking, they arrived at 12:30. “I was panicked,” my colleague told me. What if their late arrival somehow interrupted their friends’ special day?
It didn’t. In fact, it turned out that some people strolled in even later than they did. But the debate she engaged in with her husband is a common one. Coming to the wrong consensus can mean either burdening a host who wasn’t yet expecting guests or interrupting a thoughtfully timed progression of events. Even when things work out fine, as they did here, there can be a lot of stress (and relationship strain) in the process. But there is a small but meaningful way to improve on this situation: party invitations that spell out precisely when to show up.
Sure, parties have start times. But these are not directives. Arriving exactly on time is actually kind of rude, since that’s valuable time for the host to perfect the playlist and remove anything breakable. Instead, common wisdom holds that you should arrive fashionably late—but how late is fashionable and how late is too late? This is a total mystery. A FiveThirtyEight investigation once found among hundreds of party guests, the median arrival time was “a whopping 58 minutes after the party’s designated start time,” but also that it depended on many factors. In the case of larger parties, for example, the investigation concluded that you should “show up whenever you feel like it,” which still seems too loaded of an action.
You might not even know what direction to err on. Maybe the host likes to go to bed early, so you shouldn’t arrive too much after the start. But maybe you don’t know the host that well, so you should avoid arriving too close to the start time, because then you’ll have to make one-on-one small talk. But maybe the party will be quite small, in which case it’s rude to lumber in after everyone has carefully selected a spot in the living room around a cheese board. Which brings us to: Will there be dinner there, even a snack-y kind of dinner like pizza? Because it is terrible, for you, to arrive after the pizza is gone. On the other hand, you don’t want to look like you’re just there to eat dinner!
When it comes to direct advice, plenty of people advocate for arriving pretty close to on time. “If you show up 45 minutes late for a 45-year-old’s party they will hate you,” according to a colleague who is presumably either 45 or has had a harrowing experience with a 45-year-old. As Jen Doll wrote in a guide to attending parties for the New York Times, “the very best time to get there is right when the party starts,” because that’s when it’s easiest to mingle. This is good advice for some people, people who are bold enough to follow it. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people—I do not want to be regarded as a dweeb.
The clear logical solution to this collective-action problem is invitations that specify both a start time, as they do now, and an “arrive by” time. (If you want everyone to be on time, these can be the same thing.) If this seems overbearing, consider that we already spell out the etiquette with other parties. It’s commonplace for the gift situation to be clearly dictated, e.g., “no gifts,” or “accepting donations on behalf of Planned Parenthood,” or “we are honeymooning in the Maldives, can you basically Venmo us?” Many invitations even take a swing at a suggestion of how to dress, particularly if the occasion is more formal. (Additional note: Any deployment of the words cocktail attire should be hyperlinked to photos of example outfits.)
Really, in the age of electronic invitations, providing instructions to guests is easier than ever. You’re not limited to the information you can fit on a card or a flier. Your email or Facebook (well, please no) invite can also include details on what time various other parts of the party will occur. It’s true that as we adjust to the new world order, you will have to be very clear that when you put an “arrive by” time on your invite, you mean it. While you’re at it, consider putting an end time, too, so guests will know when to see themselves out. Even more fraught than a guest who shows up at the wrong time is the one you have to explicitly tell to leave.