Group of friends enjoying rooftop party

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Social events are an important part of the college experience. They’re a chance to make new connections, bond with friends, and let loose on the dance floor. Some of our fondest memories can come from these experiences. So when we throw a party or event, it’s crucial that we think through the type of atmosphere we want to provide for others and ourselves.

“I’ve hosted a lot of social events in college, and it’s always a really fun way to de-stress after a long week of classes, hang out with friends, and meet new people that my friends bring along. I’ve found that it’s good to have some sort of plan or theme to unify the event—that way each event feels new instead of doing the same thing every time, and it’s more fun for everyone.”
—Hillary R.*, fourth-year student, Yale University, Connecticut

The role of hosts and guests

Hosts are social engineers. Whether they realize it or not, they’re creating spaces that will set the tone for the type of atmosphere the party or get-together will have. Well-planned social spaces help everyone make mindful decisions.

Guests also have important roles to play in making sure that social gatherings go well. Demonstrating mutual respect at parties makes negative outcomes less likely and helps you and your friends have more fun. Check out these tips for making the most out of hosting and attending social events.

“Hey there!”: Designate a greeter 

Female greeting male with a hug

The greeter can check in with arriving guests

Have a host or a trusted friend hang out by the entrance to greet people as they arrive. This welcomes guests to the party, and also helps you keep tabs on who’s showing up and how they’re doing. Are guests arriving alone? Connect them with others. Looking stressed or upset? Check in with their friends. Slurring their words or wobbly on their feet? Don’t give them more alcohol—and maybe call for medical attention.

The greeter also sends people home safely

Make sure your guests have a safe way to get home by also checking in with them as they leave.

  • “Have numbers of taxi cab or ride-share services readily available,” says Rebecca T.*, a student completing her residency at Mount Royal University in Alberta, Canada. Try posting the numbers of local taxi companies on the door.
  • If people drove to the party, have one of the hosts stand by the door to ensure that all groups have a designated driver. If they don’t, call them a cab or ride-share service.
  • Keep an eye out for anyone who seems uncomfortable or unsure about where they’re going. Ask them what their plan for the evening is, and offer to help them make a plan to get home safely.
  • You probably know who’s going where. You can connect people to walk in groups together or to share rides.

Think like a social engineer: Design the space

Top view of chess board and other game pieces

Dance space

When you’re putting together the playlist or choosing entertainers or DJs, think about how well they fit your values and priorities for the event. Music sets the tone for the party, so avoid music that seems derogatory or aggressive. Throw in some songs that are fun for big groups, such as “Single Ladies” by Beyoncé. Upbeat, well-known songs like this tend to fill the dance floor and put people in a good mood.

Chill space

Provide a quieter, more well-lit space where your guests can hang out, catch their breath, and talk. Play softer music and stock this space with water and snacks. Why? Spaces like this give guests a chance to take a break from the crowd, catch up with their friends, charge their phones, or sit down if their shoes are uncomfortable. Having a conversation in a quiet, calm space is much easier than yelling in a friend’s ear on a noisy dance floor.

Think about adding activities that don’t involve alcohol, like Jenga®, board games, or trivia. “Focus on the connections and interactions you can have, not just alcohol,” says Kelly B.*, a second-year undergraduate at Stanford University in California.

“Have games and activities laid out to encourage the interaction of guests in an open and fun atmosphere. This will also hopefully keep the guests from drinking too much because there will be other activities going on.”
—Bailey H., recent graduate, South Dakota State University

Keeping private spaces private

Hosting a gathering at your place can be fun, but it can be annoying to find someone poking around your bedroom. If there are isolated spaces in your home, decide whether or not to keep them open and accessible. If you want to keep some spaces private, lock the door and/or hang signs saying the space is closed. If it’s not locked, check on it periodically.

Pay attention to the people around you

Group preparing dinner together

“Great hosts reflect on what they want, create a plan, and adapt as the night goes on to create a safe and fun space for their guests,” says Elizabeth Larsen, a student affairs associate at Yale University in Connecticut. “Social spaces that are effectively organized are less likely to run into issues throughout the night—which allows everyone to focus on socializing and fun.”

As a guest, you also help determine the vibe of a gathering. By thinking about what you want, being respectful of others, and looking out for the people around you, you can take some pressure off the host and help the event go well.

Hosts are especially attuned to the general mood of the event. You get to take the lead on looking out for one another and set an example by treating everyone with respect. If you’re planning to drink alcohol, stop after one or two. It’s important that you’re able to pay attention to what’s happening at the party and to respond if anyone needs help.

Fun means different things to different people. Some people would rather hang out and talk than spend the night on the dance floor, and some will be more comfortable getting physical than others. Pay attention to people’s interpersonal cues—in your own interactions and the interactions of those around you. Keep these tips in mind:

  • The vast majority of people are very good at reading the subtle communicative cues we get from other people—including in romantic and sexual situations. We can tell when someone is engaged and enthusiastic versus disengaged and uninterested. We notice things like whether the other person is leaning in or pulling away, intensifying or slowing down.
  • These signals are also apparent to observers. Take a look at the people around you. Do they seem engaged, interested, and excited about the interactions they’re in? Or do they seem to be looking for a way out?
  • Ideal encounters happen when there’s mutual enthusiasm. If you encounter anything less than that, take a step back and reassess. Hold out for a better situation.

If you see something off, there’s always something you can do

Whether you’re a host or a guest, this is your community, and you play an important role in making it a positive and supportive one. If you see something that looks or feels off, you can:

  • Check in: Say hello, ask a question, or ask for help with something. A small distraction can give someone the out they need. When people are pressuring others, the mere presence of a third person can change the dynamic and give them a chance to change their behaviors.
  • Work with hosts: Let hosts know about problems sooner rather than later. If you’re a co-host, check in with the other co-hosts. Grab a friend to help you redirect things.
  • Find the friends: If you don’t know the people involved and you’re not comfortable intervening yourself, look for their friends to see if they can help intervene.
  • If the situation escalates, get help: If you can’t handle a problem, contact an authority figure. For medical emergencies, call 911. For other situations, or if the party is on campus, contact a campus official, such as a resident advisor, security guard, dean, or the police.

Help your guests make mindful choices 

Group lounging and playing a video game in common living area

If you plan to serve alcohol, aim for an environment in which everyone can make deliberate choices about whether they want to drink and how much. A successful social event doesn’t have to involve alcohol.

If you choose the latter, it’s important to make sure you have a way of monitoring that communal drinks are safe from being tampered with. “Avoid punch bowls or already poured drinks sitting out,” says MaryAnne A., a fourth-year student at the University of Rochester in New York.

If you’re planning to have alcohol, designating a server—a trained bartender, ideally—makes drinking an active choice rather than a default. It also takes a lot of pressure off hosts.

There are many advantages to designating a server. For example:

  • “Guests will have more options of what they drink,” says Tom Blake, professional bartender, bar manager, and creator of Crafty Bartending, a popular bartending website and resource. Bartenders are skilled at mixing tasty cocktails that complement the event’s theme, as well as making simple mixed drinks.
  • Servers will measure drinks carefully to ensure that guests can keep better track of how much they’ve had. “As a part-time bartender, I have to say that having a bartender there will help avoid any overconsumption of alcohol,” says Jose H., a fourth-year student at Merced College in California.
  • Servers can offer more interesting nonalcoholic options, such as mocktails.
  • “Bartenders are able to provide a responsible service of alcohol. If someone is drinking too much, they may be able to spot it early enough to recommend someone have a glass of water, slow down a little, or have something to eat. And if someone has had too much, they’ll be able to cut them off and [help prevent] anything serious from occurring,” says Blake.

Many campuses and community organizations offer classes on bartending skills and safe serving practices—often for free. You can learn more from TIPS, a national bartender certification organization.

If you don’t have a trained server, here’s what you can do:

  • Keep alcohol in one location and designate one or two people to serve it.
  • Have ice on hand. Your cocktails and mocktails (nonalcoholic cocktails) will feel fancier and your guests are more likely to take their time sipping their drinks.
  • Find a drink recipe or two and use measuring tools to make them. For example, if you’re serving hard liquor, use a 1-ounce shot glass to measure the alcohol that goes into each cocktail.
  • Offer a few nonalcoholic mocktails and promote them on signs or posters. Look online for ideas or check out these delicious and easy recipes.

If you choose to drink, do so mindfully

Group of young adults sharing Chinese takeout

People have different limits when it comes to alcohol

Many people make the decision not to drink alcohol at all or to limit how much they drink. Pressuring someone to drink beyond their limit puts them at risk and creates more work for the host—whether that’s you or someone else. Guests who drink too much may get sick, need medical attention, or be unable to get home safely. 

Trust your own limits

If you’re planning to drink, be especially cautious when you’re stressed or sleep-deprived, taking medication, have alcohol misuse in your family, or have diabetes. Remember to pace yourself so that you’re coherent enough to enjoy the event. Keep these tips in mind:

  • Think ahead to the event, and decide if and how much you want to drink. Ask and remind friends to support your decision about drinking limits. (You can support theirs too.)
  • Limit yourself to one drink per hour or 1.5 hours so you can maximize your ability to keep tabs on everything and enjoy the event.
  • Hydrate! Alternate alcoholic drinks with water or seltzer.
  • Try to avoid drinking games—they can lead to drinking a lot of alcohol in a short time span. “If you’re at an event where the host has set up a ton of drinking games, you can feel really pressured to drink excessively,” says Alice D.*, a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. “Drinking games are designed to have you fail and promote more drinking,” says Dr. Scott Lukas, a researcher in substance use and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Include people who don’t want to drink

  • Offer nonalcoholic options if you’re offering to get the next round of drinks (e.g., “Does anyone want another beer or soda?”). “People can still can party with water, soda, juice, etc.,” says Yun Leng W., a second-year graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.
  • Suggest conversation, dancing, and board games—activities that don’t revolve around drinking. “Have something actually going on at a party—not just people standing or sitting around and drinking. It’s good to have a game night where drinking is an option, and playing is an option, and there’s less pressure to drink,” says Alli L., a first-year graduate student at The College of New Jersey.
  • Model reasonable drinking habits. Feel free to turn down a drink you don’t want with a quick “No thanks” or “Still working on this one.”

Know the signs of alcohol poisoning

Worried woman making a phone call

Get medical help in case of alcohol poisoning

If your event has alcohol, familiarize yourself with the medical response resources available in your community or on campus, and know the signs of alcohol poisoning. If everything goes according to plan, your guests will drink safely and won’t need to use those resources.

“If you do need to call for medical assistance, don’t be afraid to tell the truth about the situation. Medical providers need to know the full story to help out your friend.”
—Jamie K.*, first-year student, Colby College, Maine

Any of the following symptoms indicates alcohol poisoning

Call for medical help immediately if you see someone who:

  • Can’t walk without assistance
  • Is unconscious and unresponsive
  • Can’t answer simple questions
  • Is vomiting continuously

For more information on helping someone who might have alcohol poisoning, check out this article.

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Article sources

Tom Blake, professional bartender, bar manager, and creator of Crafty Bartending, a popular bartending website and resource.

Melanie Boyd, PhD, assistant dean in student affairs at Yale University; lecturer in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.

Elizabeth Larsen, student affairs associate, Yale University, Connecticut.

Scott Lukas, PhD, substance use researcher and professor of psychiatry, Harvard Medical School.

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