The Role of the Guest
Until fairly recently, I thought I’d mastered the fundamentals of etiquette, at least to the point where you could both dress me up and take me out. If I didn’t give etiquette much consideration, it was because I believed myself to be full of consideration.
In this I was apparently mistaken, for when a friend heard I’d been asked by this magazine to write about the social obligations of party guests, he dashed off an e-mail suggesting that I organize my article around a list of the offenses I allegedly have committed as a guest in his house over the years:
1. Do not bring uninvited guests.
2. Do not show up drunk.
3. Do not encourage the host to invite drunks, egomaniacs who speak of Kennedy connections or pompous pedants of your acquaintance.
4. Don’t spill the soup.
5. Don’t break more than one glass or plate per occasion.
6. Don’t bring questionable wine to the party just because someone brought it to your party.
7. [Name of former girlfriend No. 1] inflicted on host.
8. [Name of former girlfriend No. 2] inflicted on host.
9. Leave voluntarily.
10. Seconds, yes, but third helpings should be asked for.
11. It is good to assume that other guests also may enjoy caviar.
12. Do not bring your guitar just because you have a captive audience.
For the record, much of the above is libel, the product of my friend Lou Mathew’s novelistic imagination. Most of it I will not dignify with a defense. (I have never, for example, brought my guitar to Lou’s house. In other instances he is intentionally mixing me up with other people, so I have become what they call in the trade a “composite character.”)
I will confess to one or two transgressions. On one occasion I had gotten my wires crossed and invited two friends, one more than Lou stipulated. Since one of them was a mutual friend of Mr. Mathews and myself, I thought this amounted to a Get Out Of Jail Free card. Uh, wrong. And yes, margaritas were injudiciously consumed in advance of my arrival. Not as many as accused, though suffice it to say, I was not on top of my game.
Lou’s faulty memory aside, he and I are in full syncopation on the subject of the obligations of guests at social gatherings. From initial acceptance of an invitation to navigating a room to thanking the hostess, good guests understand that their primary duties are to be gracious and to add something to the evening--it is not enough to simply go for the food and drink. To accept an invitation is to enter into an unspoken social contract. The host provides the setting, you provide the entertainment.
By way of research, I also consulted a few books containing the wisdom of old, such as “Emily Post’s Etiquette” (75th anniversary edition), by Peggy Post; “The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette"(50th anniversary edition), by Nancy Tuckerman and Nancy Dunnan; and “21st-Century Etiquette,” by Charlotte Ford. I then adapted their advice to my admittedly imperfect perceptions of how that advice pertains to contemporary Southern California manners. What follows are some of the more common elements of protocol.
Here is a subject that can drive even the mellowest of Kundalini yoga teachers to take hostages in a convenience store, and I have observed more than one friendship rupture over failure to respond to an invitation. The reluctance of Southern Californians to make a firm commitment in the first place, let alone show up, has been widely speculated upon. Theories range from the balminess of our climate to the balminess of our minds, though for my money it mostly has to do with traffic congestion: You just can’t predict if you’ll feel like fighting your way from, say, Los Feliz to Pacific Palisades on a given day in the future. But that is no excuse for being unreliable. It is surely rude to fail to respond by the stipulated date, if there is one, because your host needs a head count when it’s time to do the shopping. And if a scheduling conflict arises, he or she may want to replace you with another guest. Respond one way or another, and barring a sudden outbreak of the West Nile virus, follow through.
By Eastern Seaboard standards, Southern California is a bastion of sartorial laxness, and any consensus on what constitutes acceptable attire has long receded into memory. After all, we live in a town where the supposed vagrant who crashes a Hollywood party could well turn out to be Bob Dylan, while the beautiful young woman whose wardrobe appears to have been personally tailored by Donna Karan might be drawing unemployment after her firing from a temp agency. Most people recognize this and decline to stipulate a dress code because they know no one will pay attention to it anyway.
Nonetheless, a few guidelines pertain. First, you want to consider the tone of the occasion. A formal sit-down dinner in San Marino calls for a coat and tie. For invitations stipulating the somewhat ambiguous California parlance “Casual Elegant” and “Dressy Casual,” a solid starting point is no jeans or T-shirts. From there you should kick it up a notch with a dress shirt and blazer for men, and for women perhaps a Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress or pants and knockout accessories. Though perhaps hallucinatory, my own sense of things tells me not to put on a sport coat until I’m west of La Brea. If no dress code is mentioned, and you are still in doubt, call the host or take solace from the words of Peggy Post: “It is always better to be underdressed than overdressed.” We should, however, draw the line at pajamas.
what to bring
“If new to a community it is best to ask what local practice is, to avoid being the only one who shows up with a gift or, worse yet, the only one who doesn’t,” writes Post. She is, of course, speaking about the not-entirely antiquated practice of providing a “hostess gift.”
Well, our own community of about 10 million is fairly resistant to any generalizations about “local practice.” While edible panties from Frederick’s of Hollywood may be appreciated in certain parts of the video industry, it’s usually better to play it safe. The matrons of etiquette generally agree that the perfect contribution is something that can be integrated into the festivities or set aside for your host’s enjoyment later. Good wine is always appreciated. Flowers are nice, though you should present them in a form that doesn’t require your host or hostess to stop and find a vase. Unless it’s a potluck affair, edible gifts should be presented with the caveat that they need not be served with dinner. At the dadaist end of the spectrum, I have a friend who reports eliciting great enthusiasm with such gifts as packing tape and lightbulbs--unexpected, yet thoughtful, gifts with an eye toward the host’s practical needs.
how to start a conversation
I used to find making small talk much easier than I do now. I blame this on knowing too many Europeans, who have convinced me that the standard American icebreaker--"So, what do you do?"--is invasive, rude and unimaginative, the equivalent of asking, “So, what can you do for me?” (For the record, Amy Vanderbilt hangs with the Europeans on this one.)
Unfortunately, I have yet to come up with a brilliant replacement. The English get a good deal of mileage out of remarking on the weather, but here that’s usually pointless. Though obvious, the line, “How do you know John and Krista?” gets the ball rolling nicely, as does, “What part of town do you live in?” or “Are you from here originally?” or “How ‘bout those Lakers?” And it is always pleasant to note any unique quality possessed by your fellow guest. Note: I have had only mixed success with, “What an interesting birthmark!” and “How ever did you get that scar?”
when to arrive
When is a gathering really intended to start in relation to the stated time? This question is mostly ignored by standard etiquette books, which are too polite to acknowledge the cat-and-mouse game familiar to anyone who is not a hermit. The exception is Charlotte Ford’s “21st-Century Etiquette,” which states that “the 15-minute-late standard is acceptable for a dinner party; in fact your host probably expects it.” In the real world, navigating arrival time involves a complex equation that factors in the circadian rhythms of the hosts, the relative value they place on punctuality, and where on the Mediterranean-to-Teutonic spectrum of punctuality they place guests.
Here is my own formula, which must be adjusted to individual situations. For a party involving drinks, appetizers and dinner, or any occasion where a designated number of people will at some point be seated around a table, generally allow 20 minutes of lag time, unless a single person with no significant other is hosting. If that’s the case, either offer to show up early to help or come at least an hour late because they are more likely to be running behind. In L.A., cocktail party hosts probably expect you to arrive an hour or more late, especially if it’s likely to run into the wee hours. The gap between the stated hour and the real-life starting time narrows in descending order of the following categories of hosts: couples with young children (prompt); couples in later middle age (fairly prompt); couples without children (relaxed); single people who are nominally attached (more relaxed); depressed, dateless, single people (whenever).
where to sit
Some hosts enjoy choreographing seating arrangements because they wish to cluster guests who they think will enjoy mingling with each other, and because things seem to work better in general when genders are evenly distributed. I prefer it this way, especially when the host puts insight and creativity into the effort. Others prefer to let their guests find their own way, or are too lazy to bother. Then you must fend for yourself, and the etiquette books aren’t much help here. It is well to gauge in advance who is the most irritating person in the room and who is the most charming, and jockey as discreetly as possible for distance or nearness, preferably without throwing elbows as you vie for your seat. The question of whether spouses should sit next to each other also is frequently raised. Ford echoes the majority when she states, “Unless it’s a new relationship, avoid putting a couple together"--and that extends to your own volition as a guest. Get out there and mingle. To be clingy is to be boring. In addition, it’s good form to take a seat voluntarily next to someone of the opposite sex to avoid clusters of the same gender. Another act of graciousness is to seat yourself, unbidden, next to an elderly person. I don’t pose this as a sacrifice but as a gesture of respect, in light of what seems our society’s tendency toward generational segregation.
It is entirely forgivable to forget the name of someone you’ve met only once, even if you were introduced only five minutes before. For many of us, names go in one ear and out the other the first time around, in which case it is fine to say, “Please tell me your name again.” If you’ve met the person on a prior occasion, just say, “I remember that nice chat we had about outlawing Rottweilers, but I’m terrible with names.”
Blanking on a name really only becomes problematic when it’s mutually clear that, after repeated encounters, you still find the person unmemorable. This situation requires deft maneuvering. A useful ploy is to tug on the arm of a friend in close proximity and ask the nameless person if he has met Sarah, feigning that in your enthusiasm you’ve dropped the ball on one end of the introduction. Sarah will then come to the fore and ask the name of the nameless, while you stammer and say, “Oh, excuse me! Of course, Sarah, this is Oswald.” (Pretty slick, huh?)
And, as Ford points out, it’s rude to let someone else twist in the wind when they’re clearly blanking on your own name, so be generous and reintroduce yourself: “I’m Gerald, and we met through Dianne the other day at the Sugarplum Bakery.”
On the other hand, maybe they deserve to be punished.
must we clean our plates?
Let’s face it: Eventually, you will encounter a host whose culinary skills make the worst short-order cook look like a Michelin chef. Or perhaps the host’s pre-Columbian recipe for boiled goat, though perfectly executed, violates the boundaries of your palate. Faced with the choice between discreetly moving your food around on the plate and pretending to eat, or gagging audibly, choose the former. The punky but wonderful book “Things You Need to Be Told: A Handbook for Polite Behavior in a Tacky, Rude World!” says it quite well: “There is no need to make your feelings known by shrieking, ‘I won’t eat that!’ like a spoiled and ill-bred 4-year-old without even trying what you have been offered. Simply take a bite or two of everything that is served, eat what you do like and leave the rest of it alone.” If your host is so insolent as to take you to task for your lack of appetite, voice your belief that goats are higher beings sent to earth to teach us wisdom, adding, “But let’s just not go there.”
Civility is all well and good, and it is nice to know the difference between a fish knife and a salad fork, but we are not invited to parties because someone thinks we should eat better. As guests, we are bid to bring something of ourselves to the pageant, and to let go of ourselves enough to dissolve into communal revelry. To a certain extent, this means leaving one’s quotidian grievances outside the door.
For example, do not, as a friend of mine once did, offer the following Thanksgiving day toast: “Whatta we got to be thankful for? Nuttin.” As Ford observes, “It’s about meeting an assortment of people--with varied interests, careers--and becoming enlightened.” A party also is a forum for spontaneous introductions, and hosts are pleased when guests take a liking to each other and forge new bonds. Nobody says it better than the timeless “Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teenagers”: “Remember that a dinner party is not a funeral nor has your hostess invited you because she thinks you are in dire need of food. You’re there to be entertaining.” That means being present, and not just for roll call.
thanking the host
According to Post, it is not necessary to thank your host post facto for a fine dinner by calling or writing--unless you’re the guest of honor, in which case a handwritten note is in order. Vanderbilt, however, suggests that each guest call or write a brief note to say thanks. Of course, today’s e-mail provides an easy way of acknowledging hospitality and is considered acceptable by Ford.
making a toast
A toast, however simple, is not merely a pleasant ritual; the clinking of glasses does a lot to synergize the gathering. If there is a guest of honor, let the host make the toast, and then you may chime in. Someone, though, should toast the host before all is said and done.
Europeans have a different take on this than Americans. An Iberian friend assumes that as a guest, her duty is to relax and be waited upon, and she is offended if her host cleans up in her presence.
This goes to show that Europeans, or at least Iberians, have some pretty strange ideas. The kitchen, after all, is the friendliest room in the house. It’s polite to ask if your help is desired, but it’s also polite for your host to answer that it’s not. Much of etiquette comes down to rock, paper, scissors, fire. As a host, I tend to announce that the dishes will be left to a fictitious housekeeper, then I secretly pray that someone will intervene and load the dishwasher. If this happens, I pretend not to notice until the work is done and I then thank the volunteer profusely.
In more formal situations, you probably want to let somebody else’s fingers do the cleaning. But help in the kitchen is rarely begrudged, and you can easily deduce whether it’s appropriate to pitch in by the tone of the occasion. If there’s a butler, let him earn his living. If your host commands you to do the dishes, then it’s up to you whether to darken that door again.
Making a graceful exit is hard, at least to me, because it requires a good deal of psychic energy to pull free of the gravitational force of the group. Also, if you’re among the first to leave, you don’t want to start a stampede. (Conversely, I’ve secretly conspired at the request of several weary hosts to lead the charge out the door.) Otherwise it may be tempting to practice what I’ve heard called “The French Goodbye,” although it could just as appropriately be called “The California Goodbye.” It involves something to the effect of climbing out the bathroom window with the door locked behind you. Not acceptable!
If the party is large, it may not be practical to say goodbye to everyone, but upon leaving, take your host aside as discreetly as possible and thank him or her for a wonderful evening. Post advises lingering at a gathering for at least one hour after dinner in order to avoid the eat-and-run syndrome, and this certainly seems sensible to me. And when you announce you’re going, get on with it.