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The Good Guest's Guide To Greatness

January 8, 2005

Often I am asked a variety of questions pertaining to etiquette and entertaining. We all know how much hard work and thoughtful planning goes into even the most intimate gathering, and would like to know our guests appreciate our efforts. So, in response to the myriad questions I have been asked, I present the following - which can easily be passed on to your children by you - most powerfully through your example. 

 

R.S.V.P.  It’s literal translation is “respond if it pleases you.” This, however, is no excuse for leaving your hostess wondering if you have been abducted by aliens, or worse, are merely rude.  She needs to know if you are coming in order to gauge how much caviar and champagne to provide to her guests. Especially if she knows you really like caviar. 

 

Once you have responded, you can begin to anticipate the occasion by planning what to wear, conjuring a unique and thoughtful hostess gift (if the party is in someone’s home), and boning up on your current events. As a guest you have certain obligations. Once you have accepted the invitation you have entered into an unspoken social contract. For their part, your hosts provide the setting, the food and other entertainment. In return you provide the scintillating conversation, appropriate humor and participate in the planned activities.  It is not enough just to show up and chow down. One must put effort forth not merely to enjoy oneself, but to ensure one’s hosts and fellow guests are having fun, too. Otherwise, why were you invited? After all, beauty only counts for so much.

 

When the big day arrives and you are contemplating what to wear, it’s good to keep in mind several things. First, what is the style and language of the invitation?  Is it engraved, done by hand in calligraphy, or was it sent by email? Does the invitation indicate the kind of party that is being given, i.e. wedding reception, 50th anniversary, or pool party?  The location can give you some clue as to what to wear, as well as the time of day. Hopefully your hosts included a hint such as “casual attire”, or “black tie optional.” I say “a hint” because these days the variations in “casual” boggle the mind whereas in yesteryear casual meant a sport coat and tie. Period. At any rate, it’s best to not to assume anything and end up being over or under dressed. Either one is embarrassing to you, your host and even to the other guests. Some say it’s best to be underdressed, but it is a compliment to put effort into one’s appearance, so I don’t buy that.  I just think people believe it looks cool to be underdressed. You know, like how teenagers wear their bedroom slippers to the movies.

 

Next, think of who is going to attend the party.  Is it an New Year’s Eve party in Las Vegas or a multi-generational family party at someone’s home? Do not, I repeat, do not mix up these outfits.

            

Third, think of how you want to be remembered after the party. Do you want to be known as the guy who always shows up in jeans even to a formal dinner, or do you want to be admired for your smooth versatility?  Some people tend to be selfish about this.  They want to be comfortable and don’t care if others are uncomfortable as a result. But if you intend to show you do care, here’s a good rule of thumb for dinner parties: no jeans for starters, and then add a blazer if the previously listed criteria indicate it is appropriate. (If you’re wondering why I don’t spell out the ladies attire it is because a. it’s too complex, and b. we usually figure out our attire based on what’s required for the gentlemen.  Really.)

            

Lastly, be sure you don’t leave your children out of the above criteria if they are lucky enough to be invited.  Some parents seem to think that children are exempt from these niceties, and that khakis and a polo shirt will do fine for any party. If you tend to think that way, let me tell you two things that might change your mind.  One, people will automatically think your children are well behaved if they are dressed up, and as a result, will revere your parenting skills. Two, your children will behave better if they are dressed up, as long as you periodically remind them during the party that they are still dressed up. They tend to forget, as you might have noticed. Oh, and number three, children like the way they are treated by other adults when they are dressed up.  I know I said two reasons, but I just thought of that one.

           

You’re dressed.  It’s time for the party. Or is it? When to arrive? If it’s a cocktail party,  promptness is less of an issue - BUT- remember that you are not being invited merely to imbibe. You are there to provide some of the entertainment for the guests with your wit and charm, so do not assume they don’t care when you arrive. Besides, it’s disrespectful to your hosts to be late.  If there is a range given, you have much more leeway, but don’t be upset if you arrive near the end and all the caviar is gone.  

           

At a dinner party, your arrival time is much more crucial.  The timing of dinner parties is very sensitive, so call your hosts if you are going to be more than fifteen minutes late.  

            

Don’t forget your unique and thoughtful hostess gift!

            

As you leave, you’ll want to make your thankyous to your hosts.  When you draw attention to a specific thing about the party you thought was particularly special, your hostess will beam with pleasure. I’m sure, being the discerning person that you are, this seemingly small but important detail will be no trouble for you.

            

If you are wondering if a thank you note is necessary after the party, the answer is no, though it is certainly always appreciated. A phone call the next day reiterating your thanks is very thoughtful.  After all, you want to acknowledge all the effort your hosts put forth.  And, with all the thoughtfulness you’ve shown, the invitations will be rolling in.                                •GMS

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