How to throw an ugly party: an exercise in self-restraint and people skills

February 9 |
Photo by Sarah Ackerman. Remixed under Creative Commons license.
In this era of Pinterest and craft blogs, it can be easy to slide into party anxiety; if your party isn't themed to the teeth, color coordinated, and perfect vintage-chic, somehow it's not a real party. To this I say NONSENSE. Parties are about the people attending them, not how they look.

NO! Not another pretty party! With perfectly-planned coordinating courses, a playlist, and cleverly-crafted decorations! NOT TODAY! Today, we celebrate the ugly party.

This winter I have been learning the value of the ugly party. The unplanned party. The no-decorations, unfancy food, just-get-together-and-love-it party. These impromptu parties have been some of the most enjoyable socials I've been to all year — and I think hosting an ugly party fosters skills you need to ensure you'll never attend a boring party — ugly or pretty — again.

These parties are best for people who A: are socially anxious or B: have socially anxious friends. So basically? Ugly parties are for everyone.

How to throw an ugly party: the basics

  1. Clean your house (or not, whatever)
  2. Stock up on drinks and light snacks. You can go heavy on food if you'd like, but be careful — it can be easy to get lost in food prep anxiety.
  3. Turn the lights down low. Party atmosphere, ENGAGE!
  4. Turn on music. Keep it low at the start. As guests get louder, turn it up to fill in lulls in conversation.
  5. Provide refreshments. If your guests are drinking, make sure they don't go dry until things are in full swing. Alcohol isn't called a social lubricant for nothing.
  6. Plan low-key entertainment. You don't have to wrangle people — "HEY Y'ALL LET'S DO APPLES TO APPLES!" — Instead, make sure group interaction aids (like board games, cards, beer pong, darts, Dance Dance Revolution) are available.
  7. Try to keep everyone in the same room. It's much easier to move from conversation to conversation and not get all awkward when there are people your guests can serendipitously overhear and slide over to join.

How to throw an ugly party: the hard part

Throwing an ugly party will flex your skills as a host. Pretty parties offer distraction and conversation topics; ugly parties make you stare at each other while you wait for the beer to kick in. Pretty parties almost never veer from white bread subjects; while ugly parties? Guests ARE the entertainment at ugly parties, so they have to practice conversational skills, teach each other party tricks, and they occasionally argue — though I've been blessed to host only civilized debaters.

This is where you, the host, are important: you must ALSO be a social lubricant, focusing your attention on the low-maintenance atmosphere and your guests' comfort. Several ugly parties I've been to started out the evening with the distinct "ohhh this is going to be the worst party everrrr" feeling. At one, I actually had a thought along the lines of: "Will we even be able to be FRIENDS after this party?" It was that bad. But with careful host attention, they've all turned out wonderfully.




Advanced ugly parties

  • Make sure people know each other by doing a casual introduction for any newbies. It doesn't have to be smooth. I like to be straightforward, because that's how I roll: "Everyone, this is Weezy. She moved here in August. She is a writer, and consults for non-profits. Weezy. You might like a conversation with Kyle." I sort of force my guests to have self-confidence.
  • If someone's particularly difficult, remember: everyone wants to be liked. And you are a kind person. You probably like all of your guests. Show them that love, ask them questions, take interest in them, and they'll melt into relaxed party mode in no time. EVERYONE ALSO WANTS TO PARTY.
  • Plan to spend the first 60-90 minutes of an ugly party hustling back and forth. You are at WORK! Smile. Strike up conversations with wallflowers, and stick around until you can hook them up with a conversation buddy. Serve drinks and food. Ask every empty-handed guest what you can get them. Never let them refuse SOMETHING: even a glass of water placed nearby gives people something to sip on/distract themselves with.
  • Babysit the music.
  • Monitor the group for inaction. Often people will hem and haw about an activity since no one wants to take charge. Take charge. Tell them you're setting up activity X. It doesn't matter if they finish the activity or not — they'll start socializing.

Then take a break! But stay alert: as the party atmosphere evolves (due to intoxication, guests leaving/arriving/falling asleep) you will have to step up again.

Protips:

  • Don't worry about cleaning up DURING the party. But do clear dishes and glasses which become obtrusive.
  • As parties roll on, needs often change. Stay alert, and feel free to shepherd guests to another location: somewhere better for lounging, to the deck for late night soul-searching, to the den for movies to sober up to.

Above all, remember to start the night by putting on your host hat. Do whatever you've got to do — just realize that you are stepping into a character. Stare into the mirror, wear an actual hat; make a designation between "normal" you and "host" you. This might not be important for everyone, but it's super useful for me, an introvert who'd REALLY rather get drunk on the couch and draw all night, PEOPLE BE DAMNED!

When I put on my hostess hat I am a people LOVER. I want them all to have fun at my house. I want to make sure everyone feels comfortable, calm, kind, and liberated (especially when they're at my house for a party like Festivus, where we have to tell each other hard truths and emerge without hurt feelings). I can have conversations like nobody's business — because I'm all about making sure my guests let it alllll hang out.

The beauty of ugly parties is this: they're all about friends. A good ugly party will make newbies in your social circle feel like they've made new friends, you'll have a sticky kitchen floor, and an ugly party will probably leave a few old friends asleep on a futon. On top of that, you'll be able to use your new-found skills to liven up any party — even when you're just a guest. Let me tell you: not much feels better than making other people feel good.

  1. I am an awful hostess, I just sort of forget what I'm doing and part of it is our bad apartment set up, bad old building with awkward rooms, but maybe our next place (3 weeks!) will be more conducive. These are great tips too, because I think it definitely is a role and I and husband-man sort of forget that.

    0 agree
  2. This is sort of specific, but it's something I need a lil' advice on: how do you throw a party with your roommates' permission, but while they refuse to be a host?
    I ran into this situation over New Year's Eve where my boyfriend didn't know our guests and my roommate just stayed in her room to play video games. I was under the impression that she'd be joining in the festivities since our guests were her friends, too, but I got left with all the hosting doodies. I don't MIND doing that, I just wish I'd known in advance. XD
    But given a situation like that, where the other "heads of household" shy away from the party, how do you regroup the party? Is that the time to HEY GUYS ITS TIME FOR APPLES TO APPLES?

    1 agrees
    • It can be weird, yes. I think the main goal is to draw attention away from the fact that someone is hiding behind their closed bedroom door. Create enough funness and they'll hardly be missed.

      Also, if your housemates are willing to pitch in but dislike mingling, maybe you could divide up specific tasks: you handle the social lubricating while they refill food/drinks, oversee the music, set up the movie, whatever.

      1 agrees
    • I think you need to speak with the other residents during you party planning. At the same time as you ask "Is it cool if I throw a party for X,Y, and Z people?" you can also ask, "Would you like to be a co-host, or would you like to be a guest for the night?" That way you know up front what kind of help you can expect, and it gives your roomies a no-guilt way to bow out if they're not up for a party. Then if people ask where So-and-so Roommate is on the night of the party you can just say, "Gosh, I'm not sure – she might be around here somewhere, but she's not on host-duty today!"

      If your roomie does indicate an interest in hosting, then you can talk details about who does what, splitting cost of supplies and all that jazz.

      3 agree
      • It was weird–she knew our guests were coming (from out of town) and was really excited to have them and even had her boyfriend come up for a visit… and then stayed in her room playing video games. I need to be more proactive, I think!
        "Hay, since you seemed way excited to have these people visit, can you please let me know if I'm in charge of doing the actual visiting? Kthanks."

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        • This isn't exactly dissimilar to how my husband can get. One more than one occassion, he's suddenly stood up and said "well! Goodnight everyone" and gone to bed. It's hilarious and luckily our friends know that he's a stubborn introvert, but it does mean that I'm left up late hosting. It doesn't bother me, and it wouldn't unless he did it with people we were just getting to know. As it stands, its just something I'm used to.

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          • Hahaha, yes! We always joke that my boyfriend "ninjas out" of events with no warning. He only does it when we have people we know really well over, so it's not a big deal, but all of a sudden he'll just be gone. And I'll go looking for him only to discover he's gone to bed. Pretty hilarious.

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        • I was also going to suggest that maybe your roomate is an introvert and was just socially exhausted for some reason. Frankly, as an introvert, reading the description of how to throw an ugly party was exhausting. :) Of course, we do have people over, but rarely big crowds, and it's seldom. I know it's hard for the rest of the world to understand, but being with people is tiring for us, and we need to regroup by being alone.

          One of my friends from grad school is an extreme extravert, and she mentioned one time how much she loves parties because they were so relaxing. My mind blew because even though I enjoy (most) parties, I feel utterly and totally spent when I get home.

          1 agrees
          • Mmhmm. In my house we call these "people sleeps". We both need to take them after socializing.

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    • Luckily my friends are all cool, so if they ask about my roommates' closed door, I say, "Oh, they're just feeling a bit antisocial." My guests always understand and just go on enjoying the party. I don't know how well this works if your friends aren't all nerds, but for our friends, the main concern is if the people behind the closed door are upset or sick or something.

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  3. All the running-stitched crepe streamers and color-coordinated dessert bars in the world can't make up for a shitty un-fun party. This is such good advice!

    4 agree
  4. My husband & I used to be the masters of the Ugly Party (though we had no idea that's what they were called). We're both amateur foodies, and we would usually make large quantities of really good but low maintenance food, and provide a LOT of alcohol & music. (Hubs is particularly famous for lethal sangria.) They're great. I miss them.

    Now we live a couple hours away from our "hey, wanna come over?" friends, and we have a baby, which makes hosting a challenge. I'm looking forward to the return of the Ugly Party in our lives.

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    • Fear not, I'm sure you can make Ugly Parties return to your life! Most of our closest friends in the neighborhood have babies/kids anywhere from 5 mos. to 6 years old and they host all the time. Once you get used to having a baby in your life, it seems like it gets easier. One family prefers to host because then they don't have to bother about sitters, their kids get to see everyone (and everyone else's kids) and once the tots go to bed… mom and dad can get a little sloppy. Another family puts their 5 month old in a forward-facing baby carrier (Bjorn?) and tote her around conversation to conversation (her nickname is officially "Party Baby"). Good luck!

      1 agrees
      • I love the idea of a party baby! Also, party baby could be a conversation starter, and something cute to look at when someone in the convo circle doesn't have any input to the flow of conversation at the moment.

        3 agree
        • Note to self: Add "party baby" to "how to throw a good party" supply list.

          4 agree
  5. I love the perspective here that all the decorations and theming can be a way to encourage chit-chat … but there are MANY other ways to get your guests talking. (Or maybe you have guests who can't shut up. WHO NEEDS COORDINATED CUPCAKES!?!?)

    1 agrees
  6. Such a great article filled with good tips! It is easy for us to make excuses to not have parties ("I haven't painted the bathroom yet, that futon is so old, my living room isn't big enough"). It's time to just get over our objections and do it because a good host is what makes a good party, not Pinterest.

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    • Too true. We had a thanksgiving party, and I was hesitant to do it because we didn't have new living room furniture and the bedroom wasn't painted pretty and the computer desk is messy, etc. We had the party, everyone had fun, and no one noticed the stuff I was worried about. Or they were very polite about it :)

      1 agrees
  7. I'm writing a hosting book, and hosting articles, and blogging hosting tips, and party recipes, and DIY, and crafts, and …and…

    I was vacuuming the house at 7 in the morning because I just offered to host an impromptu party this weekend for 12 strangers for my father – in -law's birthday. This after two weeks of being sick and working 14 hour days.

    I HAS PERMISSION TO MAKE IT AN UGLY PARTY? Oh, good. Because I was starting to get stressed out. Thanks for making me remember that I don't have to be perfect. I heart Offbeat Home.

    I'm going to go enjoy my weekend now.

    3 agree
    • Father in laws birthday? There's so much you can do with that! Get a couple different kinds of whiskey and have a whiskey bar, make super-bowl type finger food, buckets of beer, oh my god, I wish I was hosting this now. But look at me giving ideas to the person writing a hosting book! I'm sure your ugly party will be amaze-balls!

      1 agrees
      • Amy, that sounds like so much fun, except they're Russian Jews, so instead of wings and beer we had Challah bread and vodka. Lots and lots of vodka. How do you stop the vodka….

        (It was worth it.)

        1 agrees
    • I'd imagine that your Father in Law might not care about matching steamers and cupcakes anyways! He'll probably appreciate an "ugly party"

      4 agree
      • I couldn't resist making it a "little" pretty, but I stopped obsessing and after throwing together a cheese board and signs pointing to the restroom, I called it a day.

        And yes, he loved it and had the best time. He felt very loved and cared about, which is all that matters. And I got to actually enjoy myself!

        1 agrees
  8. Love this! We've always had "ugly parties" and this all written out really helps. I've definately noticed when I'm at a "pretty party" or "ugly party" where the host(s) are not doing their job.

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  9. Even if you do nothing else, have some sort of theme for people to focus on! The party doesn't actually have to center all around the theme, but it makes it sound great, and you can get people involved. One of my favorite parties I ever threw was a waffle party. We did not talk about waffles the whole time, but people brought their waffle irons and waffle recipes and we played poker and ate waffles.

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  10. Apparently all I hold are "ugly parties"! Hahahahaha! Here are my go-tos for my "ugly" parties:

    – red plastic cups. All drinks (including wine) goes in there. If you really must drink from a glass, I have ugly wine glasses shaped like the Eiffel Tower and assorted pint glasses I "borrowed" from various pubs.

    – distraction in the background. My hubby and I always put our iPod on shuffle, and have The Life Aquatic playing in the background.

    – hide things you don't want touched. At one of our first parties (a housewarming for us), we accidentally left out my husband's expensive Japanese knives (which we recently bought in Tokyo). One of our guests used one to cut a lime for his drink and tarnished the steel!

    – garbage bags. I always put out a giant garbage bag out for people to toss their crap (disposable napkins, cups, plates, utensils, etc)

    I usually only hold parties in the summer because we have a private rooftop patio on our condo…so summer means BBQ and sitting out on the patio in the warm sun until 11pm, and then a mild night after that.

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    • I thought the same thing reading this! I've never decorated or planned terribly much and I've always had fun parties. Throwing snacks and booze on the counter and sitting around seems to do the trick. When an activity comes up, it's because a few people are like, "HEY LOOK ROCK BAND/BOARD GAME" and then other people join in.

      I usually put a marker next to the red plastic cups so people can mark their drinks if they like.

      2 agree
  11. All my parties are ugly parties. Given how casual my friends and family are, I think they'd be a little bit put-off by a pretty party.

    My biggest challenge is the damn garbage. I need an ok looking recycling bin for the cans and bottles. I even have friends who will throw the bottle caps on the floor (obviously none of us have kids yet)! I'm thinking of getting a pop-up fabric one that matches the colour of our house that I can put in the living room (I'm ok with a blue plastic bin in the yard). But the bottles really bother me!

    2 agree
  12. Hang on, people actually do stuff like color coordinated napkins and cupcakes? I thought that was a myth.

    I don't do parties, I do potlucks. It's not a proper good time unless there's a sickening amount of food.

    4 agree
  13. Ugly parties forever!
    My friends and I usually do it like this: we meet at somebody's tiny apartment to drink heavily (beer, wine, or whiskey out of everyday glassware) and eat cheap snacks (chips, frozen pizza, etc.) and watch so-bad-they're-good movies or play simple games, like Picture Telephone (a sort of pictionary mutation) – all of which is low-key enough to make newcomers feel welcome. Occasionally we get crazy and have "wine parties" or "holiday parties," which really only affects our beverage and food choice.
    And luckily, if the host/hostess slips up, there's always somebody willing to open more wine or find something to do or order food.

    1 agrees
  14. This sounds a bit like any get-together people in my group of friends have. ^^ Two friends in Albany hold a weekend gathering they call "Januarymas" every year where they plan a main dinner on Saturday, but everything else is pretty unplanned. I suppose that wouldn't count as a party since it's a whole weekend, but it was definitely about the people (and a little bit about the hard cider…). Although we did get corralled for Apples to Apples. =D
    Also my fiance and I have started having "parties" for watching wrestling shows from time to time, which means shoving about 7 friends, plus us, into our bedroom where our tv is, having most of them pile onto our king bed, passing around too many snacks, and having a blast. I spent the whole day last year making food for one and it was kind of a waste. Everyone brings some chips and dip and we order a few pizzas. Fun times.

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  15. I must be lame, as I'm the only one here who seems to not like alcohol…

    Throwing parties is a lot harder when there's no alcohol, I suppose, but video/board games seem to always be the answer!

    And how do you get people to show up to a party/social gathering when you have friends from very different backgrounds?

    For instance, I have "normal" friends from high school that don't really know that I'm a huge Metal fan or that I play geeky video games. But we get along. When I have get-togethers with my Metalhead/geek friends, my "normal" friends never show up because they want to avoid "those" people (when really Metalheads are the sweetest, most polite ever!). :S I'm starting to lose friends because of this =((

    1 agrees
    • I think the solution might be to create topics of conversation that aren't specific to *either* group.

      I was worried about a party recently that combined work friends (who normally all start talking about work) and college friends (who normally all start gossiping about all our old friends and stuff we did back in the day). I steered the conversation away from BOTH of these things, and everyone meshed really well!

      Sooo… maybe you could have some sort of pot luck / board game / Wii – focussed thingy, so that there's something for everyone to do together? Stuff that's potentially neutral, basically, so neither group feels left out.

      2 agree
      • How about a movie party? It's social but doesn't require quite as much conversation, so people might feel more comfortable in the same room (or yard!) together. Offer a theme or activity that sounds like an irresistibly good time.

        1 agrees
    • We've recently begun a rash of no-alcohol parties and they have been fantastic. I suggest doing them earlier in the day, when people are less likely to assume there would be alcohol. Have good food and maybe a snack that is sort of an "event". We made home-made ice cream sandwiches at a gathering recently and everyone assembled theirs with the cookies and ice cream of their choice. It was a good way to break up the after-eating lull.

      2 agree
    • I don't drink either. Have potlucks! Potlucks are the best. I'm having a Doctor Who potluck this weekend. Also, I've found it useful to have different hangouts for the different people. I have my nerdy LOTR/Jane Austen/Disney movie people and my queer, kinktastic, talk-about-nothing-but-sex people, and I just hang out with the groups at different times.

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      • OOOOh, yes. Food is ALSO a great social lubricant — especially when people start commenting on dishes. "OH WHO BROUGHT THE L'IL SMOKIES" and "THIS QUICHE IS RAD". (All my friends yell in my head. And also mostly in real life.)

        3 agree
  16. Best new party game ever: Cards Against Humanity. Their tag line is "A Free Party Game for Horrible People." That pretty much sums it up. It plays like Apples to Apples but it is raunchy, irreverent and mildly offensive. In other words it's hilarious. You download it from the website and print it for free. We have played this at many recent social gatherings and it makes great conversation. I went through and threw away some of the cards that I found too offensive, there are also blank templates to you can make your own. http://cardsagainsthumanity.com/

    2 agree
    • I've been a longtime lurker of OBB and a shorttime lurker of OBH, but I had to comment on this. The nerdy bunch my husband and I hang with LOVE playing this game. We're actually having Nerd Night tonight, and I'm hopeful for a little CAH action. :)

      0 agree
  17. I love our ugly parties. I think nearly everything we have thrown, from our wedding to our kids' birthdays, reflect a hierarchy of what we value, which is usually:

    1. Invite the number and kinds of guests who you are best able to entertain or who are most meaningful in the context of the gathering.

    2. Make high-quality food that doesn't need too much explaining.

    3. Make sure people are introduced and that some touchstone of who they are, why they are here is mentioned.

    4. Make a balanced music list. This especially means trying to avoid 4 hours of reggae. This one is hard for us. We are often unaware that we are over-reggae-ing it.

    5. Make sure there are plenty of areas where people can get away to– a cozily lit area outside, little clusters of seating throughout parts of the house.

    After these come aesthetic considerations. Our parties will never be featured on a Pinterest board, of that I am sure. But we get next-day calls from guests all the time letting us know that they can't remember the last time they felt so relaxed and welcome at a gathering, and to me that is the bigger measure of success.

    1 agrees
  18. I think this should be reposted to OBB because the curse of perfect Pinterest parties is KILLING ME as I try to plan a wedding…this article has helped me realise I'm not suffering from a mysterious disease for not having the ability or desire to give my wedding a theme or colour scheme, or not understanding why tiny bunting belongs in cupcakes. Ugly parties relying on good food and people-UNITE!

    0 agree
    • We'll be linking it from Offbeat Bride's Monday Montage in a couple days. :)

      0 agree
  19. I've noticed over the years that if I really want people to get down and party hard, I shouldn't make the place look too nice and fancy. If everything looks too perfect, people get the wrong idea of how to act and try to act "classy". That's when the party gets awkward.

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  20. The prettier the party, the more uncomfortable the guests. Scientifically proven. By me, anyway.

    1 agrees
  21. I will add a few things…
    1. Have a place for people to crash. When people know up front that they can get shit faced, they have a better time.
    2. Make the same foods for every party. I stole this idea from my friend. It makes prep so much easier. You can always switch out one or two things if you want to try something new.
    3. Try something new! I have a swing dance party every year. Most of my friends don't swing dance, but it is a fun break from all of the casual parties. Everyone gets to dress up in cocktail attire, drink martinis, and learn how to dance the Charleston (and laugh at how bad we all are at it!). Of course, for the shy folks, there are other activities.

    0 agree
  22. A tip for the introvert party-thrower: pre-parties

    I love to feed and booze people, but I'm also an introvert, and the idea of shooing people out of my house at 3am gives me the chills. My favorite kind of party is the pre-party. "Come over to my house at 9. We'll have food and drinks & then go see X movie at 11." Or, "come over to my house at 10. We'll have food and drinks and then go dancing at midnight".

    You're never left with that awkward "Oh, my god, when are you getting out of my house?!" phase.

    0 agree
    • This is so GENIUS! I have been wondering how to have parties where no one gets drunk (drunk people, even (especially) people i'm close with, make me uber-uncomfortable), without banning alcohol entirely. This would be perfect! Thanks for the idea! ^_^

      0 agree

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