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Social events are an important part of campus culture—and of the university and 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.

“As a host, you can make sure the party stays at a safe and positive level for everyone. You could also make rules and limitations and make sure they’re known right from the beginning. And, ideally, make sure your space feels safe, comfortable, and fun for your guests.”
—Allison H., third-year undergraduate, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador

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, ride-share services, or services that drive you and your car home readily available,” says Rebecca T.*, a student completing her residency at Mount Royal University in Alberta. 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. “Asking things like, ‘Do you have a safe ride home? or ‘How are you getting home?’ can be a helpful way of checking in. It’s important that people aren’t driving home drunk,” says Cari Ionson, Sexual Violence Response and Awareness Coordinator at Mount Royal University in Alberta.
  • 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. “Encourage games that don’t require binge drinking—ones that are more social for everyone,” says Kayla O., a fourth-year undergraduate at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Newfoundland and Labrador.

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 venue, 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. “Check those isolated spaces and try to make sure people are okay. Often, if people feel like they’re too intoxicated, they may seek quieter spaces, so checking those spaces and checking in with anyone that might be there is important,” says Ionson.

Pay attention to the people around you

Group preparing dinner together

“A good host is invested in the well-being of their guests—this means they’ve put thought and foresight into what their guests may be needing throughout the evening and feels they’re able to effectively intervene in circumstances of violence and harassment,” says Ionson. “Nothing can ever promise a problem-free night, but a host can take on principles of harm reduction to mitigate harm that may be occur.”

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. “A host that has limited how much they’re drinking will have a greater awareness about what’s happening around them and how to respond effectively,” Ionson says.

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 behaviours.
  • Work with hosts: Let hosts know about problems sooner rather than later. If you’re a host, check in with the other 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, ask for help. For medical emergencies, call 911. For other situations, contact a campus official, such as residence staff, a security guard, or the police. “Keeping an eye on a friend who drank too much will protect them,” says Dr. Pierre-Paul Tellier, a Family Physician at CLSC de Côte-des-Neiges at McGill University in Quebec.

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 undergraduate 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:

  • Bartenders are skilled at mixing tasty cocktails that complement the event’s theme, as well as making simple mixed drinks, so your guests will have more options.
  • Servers can offer more interesting nonalcoholic options, such as mocktails.
  • They will measure drinks carefully so guests can keep better track of how much they’ve had. “This means a bartender will also have some idea about how much alcohol is being consumed and by whom. That way, they can stop pouring before someone becomes too intoxicated, or worse, has alcohol poisoning and needs medical intervention,” says Ionson.

Many campuses and community organizations offer classes on bartending skills and safe serving practices—often for free. You can learn more from TIPS, a global 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 club soda.
  • 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. “Drinking games are designed to have you fail and promote more drinking,” says Dr. Scott Lukas, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and researcher in substance use.

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 pop?”). “Pop, water, juice, punch, and maybe even nonalcoholic beer are good for guests who choose not to drink or need a break from alcohol,” says Laura B., a fourth-year undergraduate at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Newfoundland and Labrador.
  • Suggest conversation, dancing, and board games—activities that don’t revolve around drinking. “I find a board game is an easy distraction from alcohol—and there are some that people won’t try to turn into a drinking game like Monopoly, Checkers, or Chess,” Laura says.
  • 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 on your campus or in your community, 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.

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

Melanie Boyd, PhD, Assistant Dean in Student Affairs at Yale University; Lecturer in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.

Cari Ionson, MSW, RSW, Sexual Violence Response and Awareness Coordinator, Mount Royal University, Alberta.

Scott Lukas, PhD, Substance Use Researcher and Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School.

Pierre-Paul Tellier, MD, Family Physician, CLSC de Côte-des-Neiges at McGill University in Quebec.

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