We’re rusty and who can blame us? We’ve been cooped up with nowhere to go for more than a year. Now that we’re easing back into public spaces and social occasions, we may need a little refresher on how to behave around others. Here are 10 tips for putting your best foot forward this holiday season.
1. RSVP. Show courtesy by responding to invitations, whether yea or nay. Unless it’s addressed to you “and guest,” the invitation is for you and you only. Don’t surprise your host by bringing unanticipated guests, unless they’re Prince Harry and Meghan. Even so, you should still let the host know you’d like to bring two extras, for headcount purposes. Do you really want him to run out of bubbly before the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have a pour?
2. Decipher the dress code. If it’s casual, ask for a definition. “Casual” means different things in different circles. At society events, women show up to a luncheon or cocktail party in the latest runway looks, curated by their private shoppers at Neiman Marcus. (For men, the standard sport coat, dress shirt, slacks, and dress shoes apply.) Silicon Valley’s upstart males bend the rules with blazers, jeans, and sneakers, but if you’re not Google employee number 11, don’t even try.
3. Be on time, not ahead of time. If you’re invited for dinner at 7 p.m., show up at 7 p.m. and not a second earlier. You don’t know what kind of frantic preparations might be going on behind closed doors. Arriving early forces your host to drop everything to begin entertaining you. Sit in the car or take a walk until it’s time to ring the doorbell. Please.
4. Alert the host to your food needs in advance. If you have life-threatening food allergies, notify the host when you accept the invitation. If she can’t accommodate you, decline the invitation or eat before you arrive. A friend hosting you for dinner is not a chef in a restaurant, trained in preventing cross-contamination. If you simply dislike what’s being served, discreetly push the food around on your plate without eating. It’s just one meal. You’ll live.
5. Come armed with conversation. A party’s main purpose isn’t eating and drinking, it’s socializing. Bone up on the news, sports scores, or fitness trends so you have something to talk about. Ask neutral questions like “What are you watching on TV lately?” or “What book is on your nightstand?” My personal favorite: “What’s keeping you busy lately?” That works especially well with high net worth individuals who may not have day jobs, but usually have projects. Keep your chats short. If someone asks you a question, ask one in return. It’s about volleying, not monopolizing the conversation.
6. No gifts necessary. A bouquet of flowers is a pet peeve of many hostesses, who dislike having to stop what they’re doing to find a vase, unwrap, and arrange the posies. Bringing a bottle of wine similarly seems innocuous, but can send the message that what’s being served doesn’t measure up, so be prepared for your vino to be set aside for future use, unless you’ve been asked to bring a special bottle for the connoisseurs in the crowd.
7. At a seated meal, do not move the place cards. This is a cardinal sin. The host has worked carefully to seat people with mutual interests, or to put a chatty person next to someone who needs drawing out. Sometimes, a host has even worked to prevent people engaged in lawsuits from sitting next to one another. Avoid giving in to your inner pout. You might just make a new best friend.
8. Employ proper table etiquette. Talk to the person on your right as much as to your left. Wait to begin eating until: a) everyone at the table is served, and b) the host or hostess has started to dig in. Use your utensils from the outside in. And, please, do not slather your entire piece of bread with butter and clamp your teeth on it like a hungry lumberjack. Tear off a small piece, dot your individual bite with butter, and pop it in your mouth. Repeat.
9. Leave the cell phone alone. Checking your social media feed, taking photos, or checking work email tells people they’re not important enough to pay attention to. Journalists covering events are exempted.
10. Write a thank-you note. After attending an event in a private home, a milestone birthday at a restaurant, or sitting at someone’s table at a gala dinner, send a hand-written note of gratitude afterward. Email is faster, but a note in the mail is classier. Start out with a positive observation: “What a wonderful afternoon at your ranch, with all the hay bales, horses, and hot chocolate. I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun at a pumpkin-carving party!” Be sure to save the actual “thank you” until the end. If you start out with “thank you,” there’s nothing left to say. Hosts appreciate gratitude and will remember it (or your lack thereof) when it comes to making a guest list for the next shindig.