Are you a social engineer?: 4 ways to use your powers for good

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Feel like throwing a party? If so, you’ll play an important role in shaping the social culture of your campus. Party throwers are the social engineers who design the spaces in which students meet, dance, talk, and sometimes drink or hook up. You can help build the campus you really want.

Party hosts are in a great position to help reduce the rates of campus sexual assault. Research consistently shows that sexual violence is not an isolated phenomenon; it occurs within a broader culture of pressure and disregard for others. By holding ourselves and each other to a higher standard, we can de-normalize the low-level disregard that is often a precursor to sexual violence. We should be concerned with pressure even when no one is out to cause harm, as we always deserve to have our boundaries and limits respected.

As a party thrower, you can create an environment that makes it easier for people to make mindful decisions in which mutual respect and recognition are the default. A great party involves thinking proactively about the kind of experience you want to create. What tone and vibe are you going for? How can you make sure your guests enjoy it? How can you arrange the space in ways that help people feel comfortable?

1. Talk it out

Get together with your roommates or cohosts and discuss your goals and responsibilities for the party:

  • What do you want out of this event?
  • If this party goes as well as it possibly could, what would that look like?
  • What can help you get there?
  • What might get in your way?
  • What can you do to make space for people to participate in different ways? Of course you want your party to be fun, but fun means different things to different people.

If you’re throwing this party on behalf of a student organization or club, know your college’s policies, and consider opening up the conversation to all the members. Everyone should be on the same page about basic priorities. Think aloud about how those priorities align with your mission as a group. Also: Is this the first party you’re throwing with the newest members of your group? As seasoned members, you get to take the lead on modeling positive group dynamics: looking out for each other, treating guests with respect, and upholding your group’s values. Never throw a party in a shared home without your roommates’ agreement.

Heads up to neighbors & campus security

Talk to your neighbors

  • It’s worth visiting your neighbors a few days before the party. Give them a heads-up. If appropriate, invite them. Let them know the day and time (start to end) and ask if they have anything going on then that you should keep in mind.
  • Give them your phone number. Ask them to call or text if they have any concerns. Ideally, any noise complaints would be communicated to you first rather than to the police. Don’t forget to pay attention to your phone during the party.

Call up campus security 

Consider giving your campus security department (or campus police) the same heads-up. Here’s why:

  • They will get in touch with you if something happens in your area that you and your guests should be aware of.
  • They may offer to give you a call if they get a complaint rather than showing up and shutting the party down.
  • They can help you handle guests who shouldn’t be there and may be able to help people get to and from the party safely. Campus security and police often organize patrol duties based on where events are taking place.
How to invite fun, not trouble

Plan how you reach out to people to invite them to the party

  • Promote the party using language that matches your priorities for this event. How you talk about a party can go a long way in helping your guests imagine what it will be like. What’s the tone or vibe you want for your party? How can you craft an invitation that communicates that to your guests? For example, if you don’t want people throwing up on your couch, don’t advertise the party with lots of alcohol images, because then you’re inviting people who want to get drunk enough to throw up on your couch.
  • Think about how your theme and invitation may be perceived by people of different backgrounds.
  • Consider including some language about your expectations for your guests. Are there “house rules” you want them to know about? For example:
    • If you don’t have a lot of space, you could ask people to let you know if they’re bringing friends.
    • If there are spaces in your venue that are off-limits, you can mention that in the invitation.
    • You can include guidelines for behavior, (e.g., “Costumes are optional; respect for everyone is required,” or “We will set up before the party starts; please help us with cleanup before you leave”).
    • Articulate your rules about serving alcohol to minors and drivers, and provide information on alternative transportation and parking.

2. Set up thoughtfully

As you set up, consider how your guests will interact with the space throughout your party. Music and dance are staples of a great party. So are conversations and personal connections.

If you are setting aside a dance floor, make sure you also have a quieter, more well-lit space where your guests can cool off, catch their breath, and talk. You might stock this space with cold water bottles, snacks, softer music, and a fan. A setup that makes room for conversation will help your guests communicate more clearly. This is especially important if two people are considering going home together. They can take a break from the loud dance floor to check in about what they want to do next.

If there are isolated spaces in your party venue, decide whether or not to keep them open and accessible. If you do, assign someone the task of checking in on those spaces during the party.

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.

Students at a party

3. Welcome to the party!

Make a plan for how you will welcome your guests, help them feel comfortable, and check in on them throughout the party. As hosts, you will be especially attuned to the general mood. You can make the rounds, introduce people, and troubleshoot issues as they come up.

Hosts are well positioned to step in if they notice uncomfortable dynamics, like a guest experiencing unwanted attention or someone pressuring others to drink. It’s your party—you can check in whenever you notice something, no matter how small. The most effective interventions happen early, when (in many cases) they can be subtle.

Consider signaling who is hosting the party. Wear a signature piece of clothing, a vivid color, or silly hat. This helps guests know where to turn if anything comes up. They may need directions to the bathroom,  escape from someone who is making them uncomfortable, or help turning away someone at the door or seeking medical attention for a friend who has overdone it.

If a large group is throwing the party, consider trading off “hosting duties” over the course of the evening.

The role of designated greeters

Why it helps to have a designated greeter

Consider explicitly assigning someone (or a few people, depending on how big the party is) the task of greeting guests and inviting them in. It sets a friendly tone for the party and makes guests feel welcome in your space. Greeters (like alcohol servers) should not drink alcohol themselves.

This is also a good way of reminding guests of the “house rules” and checking in on them as they arrive. Are they arriving alone? Are they slurring their words? Do they seem wobbly on their feet? You might want to check in with someone’s friends, get them medical attention, not serve them alcohol, turn them away at the door, or send them home in a taxi.

How to de-escalate a charged situation

Make it a habit to disrupt troubling dynamics early. This is usually easy: distract people, change the topic, make a joke. In some cases—for example, if someone is violating your community standards, potentially making you liable for negative consequences, or showing aggression—you may need to address the situation directly.


  • Keep your cool. Controlling our tone and body language can be tricky, but it’s crucial to prevent the situation from escalating further.
  • Make clear “I” statements. Telling someone that they are too drunk or too aggressive will only invoke defensiveness. Instead, try something like “I’m sorry, but we can’t let you in and risk violating community standards,” “We can’t give you another drink,” or “I’m calling a taxi to get you home.”
  • Ask for help. If the situation seems volatile, enlist the help of others: your cohosts or close friends, friends of the person causing trouble (ask them to take their friend home), or campus police.

4. Can I offer you a drink?

If you intend to serve alcohol, come up with a plan for how you will keep your guests safe. Do your best to create an environment in which everyone can make mindful, deliberate choices about whether they want to drink and how much. Alcohol does not cause sexual violence, but it can make people more vulnerable to pressure or coercion (and sexual aggressors may deliberately use it this way). A successful party does not have to involve alcohol. Always provide plenty of non-alcoholic beverages. The legal age for drinking alcohol is 21.

Rather than leaving alcohol around for people to serve themselves, it’s worth assigning a couple of people that task. Here’s why this helps:

  • Designated servers can mix tasty cocktails that complement the party theme, or just serve beer or wine.
  • Designated servers are careful to measure and not over-pour drinks—a task that is infinitely more difficult for your distracted guests, who may have already been drinking.
  • Designated servers can keep an eye out, noticing who has had too many drinks, who needs a glass of water, and who needs to switch to something nonalcoholic.
  • For guests, this setup makes drinking an active choice rather than a default. It’s easier for people to count their drinks over the course of the evening.

Spot signs of trouble: Take a moment to familiarize yourself with the medical response resources available on your campus or in your community. If everything goes according to plan, your guests won’t need to use them.
Any of the following symptoms indicates alcohol poisoning. Call for medical help immediately:

  • Can’t walk unassisted
  • Unconscious and unresponsive
  • Vomiting continuously
  • Clammy skin or slow breathing

How to serve smart

Many campuses offer classes on bartending skills and safe serving practices—often for free! If you’re involved in planning parties where alcohol may be served, sign up and attend a class to get yourself ready.

Tips for serving smartly and safely

  • Keep the alcohol in one place so your guests drink only if they’ve made an active choice to do so. Having alcohol in multiple places suggests that drinking (and often drinking heavily) is the default. Consider giving guests a couple of tickets they can exchange for alcoholic drinks to help limit their consumption.
  • Have some ice on hand. Your cocktails will feel fancier and your guests will take their time sipping their drinks. Don’t forget “mocktails” (festive nonalcoholic drinks) and plenty of water, caffeine-free sports drinks, and juice.
  • Use proper measuring tools. If you’re serving hard liquor, use a 1-oz. shot glass to measure out drinks. Shot glasses have an excellent feedback loop to let you know when you’ve over-poured: they spill over.
The after-party

Organizing a successful after-party

The party may have ended, but the after-party is just getting started.

  • Make sure your guests have a safe way to get home. It’s your party until the very last stragglers head home. Have a list of taxi numbers and help your guests make the calls. 
  • Correction: It’s your party until everything has been cleared away. Well in advance, assign cleanup responsibilities so that everyone knows what is expected of them when the party ends. A little organization goes a long way.
  • Find a time to talk with your cohosts and neighbors about what went well and what you want to do next time. Consider soliciting friendly feedback from your guests: Did they have a good time? What did they like about the party? What did they think was missing?
The surprising effect of alcohol expectancies

Alcohol does what we expect it to

Here’s how that works

We don’t need alcohol to socialize or have a good time. Alcohol doesn’t generate any new desires in us or give us any new skills. Science is proving that many of the effects we commonly associate with drunkenness are not biological or physiological. Instead, those effects are the result of our own beliefs and expectations.

You may have heard of studies in which participants falsely believe that they are consuming alcohol. Although their drinks look and smell alcoholic, these study participants have consumed no alcohol at all. Yet they behave “drunkenly”: they become loud, flirtatious, talkative, and sometimes inappropriate. Researchers call this effect “alcohol outcome expectancies.”

Any of the positive effects of alcohol that we experience are already within us. If you can be witty and charming after a couple of drinks, you can be witty and charming while sober.

More alcohol does not mean people will have more fun. If anything, more alcohol increases the chances that someone will damage your place and possessions, or become intoxicated to the point of alcohol poisoning and require medical attention. As party throwers, you are ultimately responsible for the health and well-being of your guests, whether or not they are are legally old enough to drink alcohol. The best thing you can do for your guests is to make it easier for them to pace themselves and drink responsibly.

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