Bailing Before the Host Notices

Dear Helena,
I’ve heard it called “French leave” when you’re at a party and you don’t say goodbye to anybody, even the host, and you just sneak out. Is this OK to do? Is it horribly rude? I used to do it all the time at big parties, particularly ones where I was leaving earlier than the host probably wanted me too, and I’m embarrassed about it.
—I’m Tired and Bored and I Wanna Go Home

Dear I’m Tired and Bored and I Wanna Go Home,
Some think the term French leave is military in origin, referring to an extended absence from one’s army unit, but its etymology is debated. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, it’s now used more generally to mean “an unannounced departure,” such as when someone skips out of a party without bidding adieu to the host. For instance: “Does anyone know what happened to Bob and Sue? I guess they took French leave.”

As you point out, you don’t really want to draw attention to your departure if you only stayed 45 minutes. And it’s tempting not to bother with farewells when your host is busy or you’re exhausted or you can’t think of a good fib to explain why you’re leaving. “It’s awkward, this whole, ‘We have to go: the baby-sitter, late night,’” says Jon Grier, a retiree in Marin, California, who confesses to taking French leave on occasion.

But this behavior is really only appropriate at the kind of party where you barely know your host, or maybe only the friend you came with knows the host.

You need not be embarrassed about leaving if you’ve put your time in. At a cocktail party, you should stay at least an hour—you owe the host as much attention as an episode of Mad Men. Otherwise, you’re not even giving the party a chance.

But however long you stay, you can’t just sidle out the door. Your host will be left with the sinking sensation that you didn’t have a good time. Even if you didn’t, you have an obligation to your host to make him think you did. Here’s how to make a graceful exit:

Have your coats in hand. Your host will know you’re serious about leaving, and you won’t have to fend off his attempts to make you stay.

Don’t offer an excuse. As I’ve explained before, you need only say, “We have to go, thanks so much for a great time.”

Mention a connection. One of the most gratifying things about throwing a party is introducing people and seeing new friendships and romances form. So mention someone specific you’ve enjoyed talking to and any plans you’ve made to hang out with him or her in the future, no matter how tenuous: “I had a great time talking about mountain biking with Joel, and we’re going to become Facebook friends.”

Finally, it’s OK not to say goodbye to the other guests. If you broadcast your departure, more people may start stressing about their dogs/baby-sitters/work commitments, and you could cause a domino effect.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.