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Holiday Survival Guide: Hit or Miss Manners

Jack Smith

It can be the most uplifting of occasions, the sort of thing that gladdens the heart, brightens the calendar, and provides moments that everyone present will remember fondly. Or it can be cause for dread, an event to be approached with misgivings and endured under duress. Recalling it will prompt even the most hardened among us to cry to the heavens, “Never again!” We refer, of course, to that popular yet so often misunderstood institution, the dinner party.

Chances are greater than ever that all of us will soon wind up at a bash that falls into the second category, or so asserts one of America’s most prominent arbiters of the social scene. “Parties have changed in the last 15 years,” says Letitia Baldrige, author of New Manners for New Times (Scribner, 2003). “The private dinner party is dead. People have forgotten what entertaining is all about. They’ve lost the art of simply making their guests comfortable and making conversation flow.” Instead, says Baldrige, today’s dinner parties are held to promote an agenda: to raise money for somebody’s favorite charity, to place a host’s face in front of the cameras, or to signal that the party giver has arrived in the upper social strata. “These are awkward, cold affairs,” says Baldrige. “They may cost somebody a fortune but reflect little in the way of personal style     or hospitality, or even the most rudimentary understanding of etiquette.”

Baldridge, who has been attending parties for the last five decades, says she cannot recall people ever acting as clumsy at social affairs as they do today. “We’re very awkward when meeting people. We don’t know how to start conversations or end them gracefully. We feel uncomfortable and make others feel the same way.”

It is difficult to imagine the genteel Baldrige making anyone feel less than welcome, and with her setting the example, graciousness may soon come back in style. But until then, we direct you to the following guide to dinner party etiquette. As the questions and answers may suggest, for some of us, it has arrived just in time.

Q. What does the term “decorations” mean when it is included in an invitation? My party planner says it means we can put glitter in our hair and paint our faces like cats. But because the party is being held at the British Embassy and will celebrate the Queen’s birthday, I’m not so sure. What do you think?
—Anxious in Alexandria.

Dear Anxious,
As a rule, you should forgo glitter, plastic animal noses, or bunny ears at affairs of state. “Decorations” refers to military ribbons, and with civilian attire, usually only one is worn, in miniature. Note that the term is not a reference to those ersatz diplomatic sashes and decorations that some dining societies award to their members. You don’t want to explain to a bemedaled officer of the Queen’s Life Guard that you received the handsome medal on your chest for selecting a wine to go with dessert.

Q. We recently received an invitation to a dinner party thrown by one of our town’s better-known hosts. When it comes to entertaining, he is said to pull out all the stops. So we were surprised when the invitation described the attire as “informal.” Is this the same as “smart casual”?
—Giddy in Grosse Pointe.

Dear Giddy,
Save your Lands’ End outfits for your next backyard barbecue. Informal does not mean come as you are; it means black tie. If the invitation had said formal, you would be expected to wear white tie. You do know that black tie means more than just a tie?

Q. Every time we host a dinner party, we have to invite my wife’s recently divorced niece, a young lady of ample endowment—and I’m not talking about her trust fund. This would be fine except that she insists on wearing low-cut dresses, exposing cleavage that would give a mountain goat vertigo. My wife and I have often suggested that she wear something more demure, but she doesn’t seem to get it. What do you suggest I do?
—Blushing in Buffalo.

Dear Blushing,
There are numerous things to do, but what’s the problem?

Q. Recently I have been meeting a lot of people with noble titles. I thought this meant I was moving up in the world until a prep school classmate turned up recently as a British lord. He has become insufferable with his new title—which I suspect he found in a Cracker Jack box—insisting that everyone address him as Lord Such and Such. During our class reunion, I’ll be hosting a dinner, to which I have to invite him. How do you suggest I break him of this habit without offending him?
—Dubious in Dallas.

Dear Dubious,
The market for aristocratic titles is thriving; you can acquire one through the Internet. People often enjoy meeting someone with a title, but if your classmate’s pretensions are becoming unbearable, you may engage the services of a needy British nobleman for your soiree and strategically situate him on your staff. Then, when your newly aristocratic friend is regaling everyone about his ancestral rights, introduce him to his waiter and explain that he, too, is a peer of the realm.

Q. As president of a small college in the Midwest, I will soon be hosting a dinner party to commemorate the most generous gift that the school has ever received. Only, it will be given in the donor’s name with no mention of his wife, who will be accompanying him to the dinner. What words do you think will be appropriate for the occasion?
—Concerned on Campus.

Dear Concerned,
How about “Duck!” because as soon as his wife learns she is not included, the plates and silverware will fly. To omit one’s wife from the announcement of an endowment is one way of saying, “Hey everybody, we’re getting divorced!”

Q. I'm planning a really big dinner party, and a friend suggested that I try rotating seating. How does this work?
—Curious in Cape Cod.

Dear Curious,
Rotating seating is often employed at parties of a dozen or more to allow the guests to chat with more than one set of neighbors at the table. It gains an additional note of sophistication when music plays and one chair is removed during the seating change.

Q. A friend, the CEO of a Nasdaq high-flier, was a guest at a dinner party I recently hosted. Alas, after several glasses of Le Pin, he let slip that a patent application had been rejected. Later that evening, while everyone was enjoying brandy and cigars on the rear terrace, I overheard another guest on his cell phone to his broker. Upon seeing me, he waved me over and pledged me to silence about his call, promising that he would cut me in on the profits. What do you think I should expect for keeping my mouth shut?
—Hopeful in Hartford.

Dear Hopeful,
Five to 10.

Q. I’m chairman of our local film festival, and this year the famed Greek director Zorba Kostanovis will be our guest of honor. He’s one of these fiery-eyed, creative types known for singing and dancing and smashing plates until dawn. I’ll be hosting a dinner party for him and his friends, naturally. But is there anything else you recommend that I do during his visit?
—Excited in Encino.

Dear Excited,
Use paper plates.

Q. I’ve been invited this year to a very snazzy annual dinner for our town’s movers and shakers. The problem is, guests don’t find out until after dinner, when they’re well lubricated with wine and cognac, that they’re expected to give to one of the host’s favorite charities. I would love to go, because it’s a great event for networking, but I have my own charities. Is there any way to finesse this event?
—Wary in Wilmington.

Dear Wary,
The solution is a simple one. Ask the caterer, after pressing a wad of bills into his hand, to fetch you before his staff interrupts the dinner service, explaining loudly that you are needed (a) at the hospital, (b) in Washington, or (c) on your rancho in Argentina. A half hour later, every other guest will wish he or she had done the same.

Q. How do I deal with a bore at a dinner party?
—Peeved in Palm Springs.

Dear Peeved,
It depends on the type of bore; they come in all shapes, sizes, and forms. Some bores want to tell you all about the celebrities they have met, or the killings they just made in the market, or their vacations in the islands. A host has to be careful about his guest list; people who appear perfectly well mannered and benign by themselves can transform into droning bores when they discover a kindred spirit. Bad combinations include two or more yachtsmen, marathon runners, women who have had the same operation, and—worst of all—avid golfers, especially if they have both played St. Andrews. Some bores will grab you by the arm as you walk past as if to say, “Hang on, you’ll want to hear this, and then I want to talk to you personally.” With bores of this ilk there is no point in trying to be subtle. You can look meaningfully at your watch or wave to other guests indicating a desire to join them—all to no avail. Bores do have their place. The man with an encyclopedic knowledge of the British royal family may be deadly one-on-one over cocktails before dinner, but at the dinner table, he can fend off that deadly silence with his stories. Whatever you do with a bore, never argue with him. That is like wrestling with a pig: You just get dirty, and the pig enjoys it.

Q. My daughter’s new boyfriend is a very cultured young man from an old European family. He’s always impeccably dressed and a marvelous conversationalist; the way he talks about medieval history, you would think he had been there. But he has some strange habits. Aside from abstaining from wine, he says it’s uncivilized to attend any event that begins before nightfall, and he has asked that all the mirrors in our house be removed. Is this some arcane point of etiquette that I’m not aware of?
—Nervous in New Canaan.

Dear Nervous,
Let’s not jump to conclusions. Serve something with lots of garlic and get back to us.

Photo by Jim Fets
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