‘Tis the season. September marked the opening of the San Francisco social season. First came the opera and then the symphony. Both were glamorous black-tie, see-and-be-seen events. Unfortunately, evening gowns and tuxedos don’t always equal good behavior.
Great Britain’s authoritative bible on social etiquette, Debrett’s Correct Form, clearly spells out the right behavior for social occasions: “Manners, social intelligence, personal presentation and impact can be as important as academic qualifications.” You have only one chance to make a first impression on the red carpet, so why not do it with style? While tone and tenor are important, you will be judged by your appearance and behavior.
I happen to be one of those guests who like to be told where to sit. I also believe that hosts have the right and even the duty to shake things up a bit and exert a little control over the evening with place cards. Without them, gregarious people are liable to sit next to one another and quiet people may do the same, which makes for either too much conversation or not enough. Good etiquette is all about balance at the table and everywhere else, and place cards are an important way to maintain balance during formal dinners. Also, it is proper etiquette to always seat spouses apart from each another. Miss Manners, Judith Martin, agrees: “It is not only at state dinners, but also at any properly run dinner party, that couples are seated apart from each other. This heads off the irresistible temptation to break into the telling of family stories with remarks like ‘No, dear, that was the second time we went there, not the first.’ When Miss Manners is told of couples protesting that they can’t bear to sit apart even for the length of a meal, she does not take it as evidence of marital devotion. On the contrary, it sounds mighty like distrust. If they have no social interests or skills, they can always stay home.”
Sense of Occasion: A Social Guide
• Your image is showing. Before your red-carpet arrival, remove any chewing gum from your mouth. And always keep breath mints close at hand, as well as ibuprofen for your aching dogs.
• Dress to impress. Black tie means tuxedos for men and long gowns or cocktail attire for women. Yes, it socially acceptable for women to wear short cocktail dresses.
• In praise of place cards. If you were invited to a state dinner at the White House, would you change your seat? I think not. If place cards are used, don’t move them around to accommodate your own interests. This is especially true for formal events, where a great deal of effort goes into assigning seats for VIPs, major donors, and potential donors.
• Words of caution. In a social setting, it’s best to stay away from topics such as politics and religion. Instead, agree to disagree. Conversation about the evening’s program is always a safe bet.
• The unexpected guest. When a guest visits your table, stand up to greet him or her. This establishes you both as equals and is courteous behavior, but it is not necessary to introduce the visitor to the entire table.
• Put a fork in it. After each course, remember to put your utensils in the proper placement: laying the knife and the fork across the right-hand side of your plate at the 12:20-o’clock position signals that you have finished eating.
• The no-smartphone zone. At the concert, refrain from the selfie. All electronic devices should be off, and all eyes should be on the stage.
• Maintain order out of chaos. Openings tend to get bottlenecked. Don’t shove; just wait your turn. Think “You before me,” not “Me before you,” especially if you’re wearing a full-length evening gown with a long train.
• Being polite is not optional. It’s only one evening, so be on your best behavior and put your best Valentino, Louboutin, or Chanel-shod foot forward.
• Finishing touches. To end the evening on a high note, say goodnight to your dinner companions and say something pleasant about the event before you leave the table.
Incivility often grows out of ignorance, not malice. If you never complain, you will never have to explain, and your evening will go much more smoothly. Everyone may not be equal in social status, but they should be treated as such, at least for one glamorous night on the town.