Never one to mince words, my dear old dad became downright curmudgeonly in his later years. Family lore is rich with anecdotes featuring his grumpy-old-man antics (which really did mask a warm and generous heart) … but one stands out in particular.
Dad and mom — who loved to entertain — did so frequently. An especially gracious and easygoing hostess, my mother always made people feel right at home, so much so that it was not unusual for dinner or bridge guests to stay parked in our living room long after the dessert was served or the last rubber played.
On one such protracted evening, my father, seeing no end in sight, got to his feet, looked pointedly at his watch, and said to his stunned guests (and his equally mortified wife):
"Well, I don't know about you people, but I'm going to bed."
And up the stairs he went, leaving my poor mother to ease the feelings of their friends, who apparently did leave soon thereafter, never to return.
While I can't condone what my father did those many years ago, who can't sympathize with his plight? Who hasn't found himself or herself sitting across from guests who simply will not leave, gazing longingly at the front door and wondering how to politely phrase a sincere "get the hell out of my house"?
People who just won't exit an event present one of life's trickier social situations. After all, you invited these people, and, as a host, you are obligated to make them feel happy and comfortable. On the other hand, it's neither fair nor practical to expect you to stay up far past your bedtime, especially if you have work or other commitments the next morning. Here are a few tried-and-true tactics:
The pre-emptive strike
The best way to get out of an awkward social situation is to avoid it altogether. When you issue your invitation — whether written or verbal — include an end time as well as a start. For instance:
Please join Bibi and Alden Fairbanks for an evening of cocktails, heavy hors d'oeuvre, and entertainment at their home, 7:00PM until 10:00 PM, Saturday, October 17.
Hey, Trish! Ted and I were wondering if you and Susan could come to our place for dinner next Wednesday. How about 5:30? Since we all have work or school the next day, we'll make it an early start, so we can wind things up before 8:00 and get everyone a good night's sleep.
Well-meaning hosts sometimes try to ease the awkwardness of entertaining guests who stay long after they should have gone by offering additional refreshment as a hint: Would you like some tea before you go? One more for the road?
This often backfires, as folks who can't read the more obvious signs (such as the fact any other guests have long gone) are likely to see this additional hospitality as something you've been saving just for them, and dig in for the long haul as they polish off your Earl Grey and favorite Scotch.
No: Once you have served what you planned as your last course and/or round of drinks, that's it. Close the kitchen and/or bar. Ignore their empty glasses and longing look... and, in fact, if they still don't get the message after 20 minutes or so, go ahead and clear any remaining glassware from the room. This is an old trick restaurants use to get rid of diners who camp out too long at tables that must be turned... and it works.
Lights up; music off
Another tactic taken from the hospitality industry comes from the mandatory closing times established in most states. In these areas, bars and clubs must conclude their business and shut their doors by a certain hour or face hefty fines and even closures.
I worked at such a place while in college. In the overbright silence that followed the sudden cessation of pumping music and the flicking on of the overhead lights, most patrons of the Boathouse Bar and Grill instinctively headed for the exits... even before manager Bobby Greene started bellowing directions to the "NO-tell MO-tel" in his distinctive Boston Southie accent.
Worked like a charm, every night.
You can achieve the same effect by simply turning off your sound system and putting on all the lights. Even the most obtuse of overstayers should get the hint; no top-of-the-lungs encouragement needed.
It's not you, it's me
And then there are the ones who just don't pick up on social cues. Interestingly, they often are self-aware enough to articulate this: Hey, if it's time for me to go, just let me know! Many conscientious hosts might prevaricate here, based on their own social awareness. Isn't it rude to actually ask someone to leave?
The answer in this case is "No." If someone posits that question, he or she is telling you they need help in the social arena, and a gentle, "Yes, Simone, the evening is over — thank you so much for coming" helps everyone out.
On the other hand, if your lingering guest(s) seem perfectly happy to settle in on your settee for hours and doesn't ask the magic question, it's still time to speak up.
But you can save grace (and everyone's pride) by positing your request in terms that lay the blame at your feet and not theirs.
Oh, my goodness… look at the time! Peter and I have kept you far too long. It's time to say ‘goodnight' and let you get back to your own home and family.
I must apologize, guys… our conversation has been so engaging I've lost track time of the time. I have an early meeting tomorrow. Let's we continue this another time.
In the end, your guests are your guests, and it is your duty as your host to make them feel comfortable and welcome... even if they've overstayed theirs. You can do it.