Dinner PartyTalk about thoughtful:  when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown arrived in Washington for his first visit with newly elected President Obama, he presented his host, the President, with a multi-volume biography of Winston Churchill and a pencil holder carved from wood from a former British Royal Navy anti-slavery ship. He was roundly celebrated by the press for his careful and considerate choice of gifts.

While your present may not get media attention, getting the hostess gift right can make the difference between a warm welcome from a happy recipient and a moment of discomfort that may put the whole evening off. Taking the time to select a unique token of your appreciation makes everyone feel good. Use these three guidelines to start thinking of what to bring.

1. What country are they from? 

With the convergence of cultures in the United States, ten families on a street can have ten completely different etiquette structures. One Italian custom upon arriving at your hostess’ door is to “knock with your feet.”  The idea behind this saying is that, arms are so laden with food and gifts, knuckles aren’t available for knocking and so feet step up to the job.

If you’re invited to the home of a friend or colleague from an Asian country, on the other hand, know that the host usually expects a small but classy (expensive) gift. While not as rigid about the consistency and the price of the gift, South Americans and Europeans still figure on getting at least wine when inviting friends. Americans and Canadians tend to be the least schooled and consistent in gift-giving at dinner, holiday or cocktail parties.

Find specific guidelines for each culture through an internet search. There, you learn specific cultural practices such as always presenting the gift to Japanese hosts with two hands and never giving a gift in sets of four (four chocolates, for example). Four is a symbol of death in the Japanese culture. Who knew? Only the internet has the extent of information you need to get the skinny on your host’s specific cultural background and expectations.

2. Does the occasion call for hostess gifts?

Although she passed away in 1961, Emily Post remains the reigning queen of etiquette thanks to the children and grandchildren who uploaded all of her guidelines at Emilypost.com. According to the website, the occasion can dictate the need for a gift. Hostess gifts are generally called for in the case of:

  • Casual dinner parties
  • First visits to a home
  • Housewarmings
  • Weekend or extended visits
  • Cocktail parties

3.     Your relationship with the host

Business relationships always dictate a hostess gift. Guests need to convey they are sensitive to the needs of colleagues. The hostess gift also indicates you’re serious about the relationship and intend to put effort into it to benefit you both.

Meeting a new friend can call for a gift. If you’re a guest or spouse of someone invited, it’s polite to show your appreciation with a hostess gift. Because you don’t know the hostess well, gourmet food gifts like chocolates or premium cooking oils rather than alcohol sidestep tricky situations.

Meeting in-laws can be stressful, whether you’re meeting the parents of an adult child’s fiancé or meeting your own future family members. Bringing a small, thoughtful gift can smooth the waters and start all parties off on a firm footing.

Pour Glass of WineThe right gift for the right person

Typical hostess gifts include:

  • Wine (Caution: don’t expect it to be served at the dinner. The hostess may have already chosen coordinating wines. Only bring wine to homes with no history of alcoholism.)
  • Flowers (Caution: flowers without a vase will make the host scramble around in search of one, causing distraction he or she doesn’t need. Either bring a vase along with the blooms or send flowerspchyperlink before or after the event.)
  • Gourmet foods – fruits, cheeses, chocolates (Caution: like wine, the foods you bring may not blend with the prepared dinner. Don’t be insulted if your gift goes right into the pantry.)
  • Potted plants
  • High end olive oils and vinegars
  • Fancy or “natural” candles and soaps
  • Small gift baskets

What if you already blew it?

Maybe you found this article after the fact. If you failed to bring a gift to the dinner or party, it’s perfectly appropriate to send flowers the next day or so. This gesture of your appreciation can perk up an exhausted hostess.

A gifting homerun just feels good

“Thoughtful” means you take the recipient’s traits and likes in mind when choosing a gift. That you went to the trouble to discover them expresses your gratitude for the invitation. Make sure you’re always seen as an appreciative guest by bringing the right hostess gift. No matter the occasion or hostess, play it safe by bringing something small but unique. Flowers or fancy chocolates at least show that you appreciate the invitation and know the hostess has gone to some trouble to feed and entertain you.