Crusty-Plate Duty

Dear Helena,
I had a dinner party with 10 guests, and no one offered to help clear the table. I couldn’t believe it. They just sat there drinking and talking while I rushed back and forth. I was brought up to always offer to help when someone cooks you dinner. Am I being totally uptight and old-fashioned?
—My Mother Taught Me Right

Dear My Mother Taught Me Right,
Chowhounds fall into two camps on this topic: hosts who expect an offer of help, and hosts who don’t want guests to lift a finger. The first group thinks that if you make dinner, the least a guest can do is bus a few dishes. The latter group believes that having someone over for a meal is like giving him a gift, and part of that gift is that he need not scrape the plates.

Both groups are partly right. A guest ought to offer to help, but a host should do most or all of the cleaning-up. The offer to help clean up is one of what I call the “Three Polite Questions” for dinner guests. The other two are “What can I bring?” and “Do you need any help cooking?” In all three cases, unless it’s an emergency, it’s rude for the host to demand much in response. You shouldn’t ask guests to pick up a bottle of some obscure liqueur or peel a mountain of turnips. Similarly, when a guest offers to help with the dishes, you shouldn’t hand him some steel wool and say, “Great, see what you can do with this crusty roasting pan.”

So why bother with these questions at all? Because they make hosts feel appreciated. If your guests just carry on chatting and sipping brandy while you collect crumpled napkins, you feel like a servant. A simple offer of help—even though you’ll probably decline—shows that guests don’t take you for granted.

Dear Helena,
When I have my friend over for dinner, she always offers to help clean the dishes, but I have to rewash them the next day because she does a subpar job. Would it be within the bounds of etiquette to correct her technique, or is this looking a gift horse in the mouth?
—Sparkling Cutlery

Dear Sparkling Cutlery,
When a guest offers to help clean up, it can often be more of a hindrance. That’s because people can have very different views on proper dishwashing technique. (For evidence, check out this lively debate at the Kitchn.)

People also differ widely in their philosophies on how to load the dishwasher. My mother and my husband certainly do not see eye to eye on this.

It would be nice if we could instruct guests that our crystal glasses should be washed in scalding hot water and placed the right side up to dry. But if someone’s doing you a favor, it’s churlish to criticize. Granted, it can be particularly hard to keep quiet when a guest’s gaffes are hurting the environment, like when he lets the hot water run and run, or scrapes food meant for your compost heap into the trash. But you have to choose your moment for a lecture on conserving the Earth’s resources. A guest is not at his most receptive when he’s scrubbing your dirty pots.

So either keep your mouth shut or do the dishes yourself. It’s easy to stop a guest from going near the sink. Just say, “It’s so nice of you to offer, but I’d really rather spend the rest of your visit hanging out.”

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena. You can also follow her on Twitter and fan her Table Manners column on Facebook.