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Q & A : Black Tie: Taking a Plunge Into the Social Swim

Judi Kaufman of Judi Kaufman & Company in Beverly Hills has been preaching the gospel of good etiquette for 20 years, instructing children as well as corporate executives in the ways of good manners. But not everyone has had the benefit of formal or informal training, so we asked Kaufman for tips on what to do if you’re used to back-yard barbecues but the invitation calls for black tie.

Question: You’ve been invited to a party where you think you’ll feel out of your league. Any pointers?

Answer: Go with one basic premise, which is whatever you do, be as understated as possible rather than trying to stand out. When in doubt, don’t. Whether selecting clothes or being engaged in conversation, go toward being more conservative.

Q: What about clothes?

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A: For women I’d recommend neutral colors; for cocktails, black is always safe. This is not the time to show a lot of decollete or wear a micro-mini. For a man, if it’s black tie you will have to rent a tux if you don’t already own one. And if it’s black tie optional, I’d recommend a tuxedo because 90% of the men will have one on, and not wearing one will draw more attention to you.

Q: Would you recommend reading etiquette books?

A: It’s a good idea to consult a book, and the most important areas to concentrate on are making introductions and conversational techniques. If you do some preplanning, going through the motions, remembering that goals for the evening are to remember people’s names and have interesting conversations, that’s much better than winging it.

Q: How does one study to be a good conversationalist?

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A: I would read a magazine such as Time or Newsweek that will give you an overview of current events, especially if you don’t typically read those magazines. And certainly if it’s a charity event, you should find out as much about that charity as possible and have a whole litany of questions you’d be able to ask. And I would ask open-ended questions, such as when, where and how, rather than questions people can answer “yes” or “no” to.

Q: Say you’re doing everything right, but someone hits you with a condescending comment?

A: I’d remind people that this is not the time to win a point of view or to be on the defensive. Parties are a time to keep things lightweight. If you’ve accepted an invitation, you have a responsibility as a guest to be an appropriate guest. If you receive negative feedback, turn it around.

Q: And what about those disasters that no one wants to think about, like spilling a drink on someone or forgetting someone’s name?

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A: Maintain your sense of humor and try to solve the problem. Rather than make a big scene, quietly go to the maitre d’ or one of the waiters and take care of the problem, and be as unobtrusive as possible. Forgetting people’s names is not the worst faux pas in the world. Always state your own first and last name, and that will trigger someone else to do the same. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself, but glad-handing is inappropriate. If you’re at a business function, watch your superiors in terms of how they behave.

Q: What’s the appropriate way to thank a host or hostess after a private party?

A: A written note is always very appropriate, and it should be done right away, within 48 hours. For a private party it’s appropriate to bring a hostess gift, such as flowers or edibles or a good book. Those are safe. Don’t send hard liquor; wine is all right.

Q: OK, confess. Have you ever felt out of your league?

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A: Honestly, I think everybody has felt that way.


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