It's that time of year. Office Christmas parties are coming up, families will getting together, and we slowly start to dread the fancy, formal parties that cam flood our calendars. Don't worry! As long as you know what to expect, formal affairs aren't difficult. With a little knowledge and some common sense, you can even enjoy them. Here's how.
Whether you love or hate fancy affairs, the key is to learn what you should expect before you go and plan accordingly, then just remember to be courteous while you're there. I personally love fancy affairs, because the rules that surround them -- while stuffy and obstinate to many people -- are so regimented that once you know them and follow along, you can relax and enjoy yourself without worry or social awkwardness.
If you get an invitation to a fancy dinner party this season, have to go to a formal dinner of any kind, or if the office party is a bit classier than pizza and beer in the cubicle next to yours, here's how to survive.
Learn As Much As Possible In Advance
A little preparation goes a long way. If you know that it's the time of year for fancy get-togethers, you may want to step up your game and make sure you have some formalwear options in the closet cleaned and pressed and ready to go. Here are some other tips to smooth things over once you get the invitation:
- RSVP as soon as possible If an RSVP is required, make sure to send one as soon as possible, preferably within a week of you having received the invitation. This makes things easier on the host or planner, and gives them an indication sense for how many people will attend their event. The event will be better for you having done so.
- Dress appropriately. You don't have to throw on a suit and tie unless you know the event will be formal, but there's no excuse to show up to a social affair looking less than professional. Sure, if you're just headed to a friend's house to watch sports, no one cares, but if you're headed to your boss's house for a Christmas function, or you've been invited to a dinner hosted by a local civic society, you should at least put on a pair of pressed slacks and maybe a jacket or button-down shirt or blouse. It shows tact and class, and it also gives the nod to your host that you appreciate and planned for the event.
- If you're unsure of anything, ask your host. When you RSVP, get any questions you may have out of the way. If you have an invitation from your boss to a dinner party at their house for the holidays, ask them at work when you give them your RSVP what the general dress will be like -- are you guys kicking back and having beers, or will there be other people from work there? Would they like you bring anything? If you see that the event is taking place at a banquet room or a private dining room at a nice restaurant, it's a sure bet that it'll be a dressy affair. Still, if you're not sure, ask for details.
Remember, the invitation should have all the information you need for the event, but if it doesn't, asking questions is a good thing, especially beforehand. The person planning the event obviously wants the affair to be a success, so they'll be willing to answer your questions.
Arrive On Time, Bring A Gift, Make the Rounds
On the day, make sure you give yourself enough travel time. The more formal the event, the closer to the start time you should arrive. If you're headed to an informal affair where you know everyone will be standing around with plates and will serve themselves, you can be more flexible, but I'd suggest not being more than a half-hour or so late. If it's a dinner party and everyone will be seated, make sure you're on time (or call ahead if you won't be) so you don't hold up the meal for everyone else.
Whatever you do, try not to show up early unless you've been asked to -- the planner or host is probably scrambling to finish up and make sure everything is just right. The last thing they need in those rushed moments is their first guest at the door while they're changing clothes, tidying up, or finishing the place settings.
Also, if you're going to someone's home, bring a gift, like a bottle of wine, some cheese, or a dessert. A small token such as a bottle of wine shows your host that you appreciate the invitation. Don't expect them to use it that night; it's just a gesture to say thank you. Don't get too hung up on it, or on picking the perfect selection.
Finally, make the rounds when you're invited in or first arrive at the event. If it's a seated dinner and there's some time to talk before dinner, offer to lend the host a hand if they need one, and talk to the people who are there with you. It is a social affair, after all. Try not to sit in a corner with hors d'oeuvres and a glass of wine staring at your phone.
Mind Your Manners
The basic rules of etiquette and common courtesy apply when you're dining at an intimate dinner party, a formal banquet, or headed to your company's office party. Chew with your mouth closed, be considerate of other guests, don't take more than you can eat. Bring your food to your face, not the other way around. Put your napkin on your lap (it catches spills, and makes it easy to wipe your mouth or hands discreetly). If something's out of your reach, ask for it to be passed to you. This is all basic stuff, but it bears repeating, because it's even more important in a formal or semi-formal setting.
The video above is from this excellent guide from The Art of Manliness that covers these points and many others we've mentioned. That guide also touches on specific situations, like when you're expected to drink but you don't consume alcohol, or you have a restrictive or special diet.
Take a cue from your hosts. They'll probably invite everyone to start eating, or make sure the food gets around the table once before they start eating, which is when you can start eating. If the dining atmosphere is informal, with everyone sitting in the living room or perched in chairs with self-serve plates of food, eat whenever you're comfortable eating. Watching your hosts for behavioural cues and following their lead will serve you well.
If you do make a faux pas, clean up after yourself, and ask the host if you can make it up to them, especially if you're damaged or destroyed something. Spilled a glass of wine? Be self-effacing and polite, and try not to let it ruin the evening. Own up and apologise directly to the host -- the more up-front you are, the more likely you'll share a laugh about it and move on. Oh -- and before we forget; don't drink too much.
Know Your Place Settings
The images above and below are also sourced from the Art of Manliness' guide to table etiquette (originally from Replacements, Ltd), and are quick visual guides to your place setting at a formal or informal dinner party. Their rules are a little more stringent than most events call for, but they're good to know. At least, you can expect a plate, a bowl if there's soup, a water glass and wine glass, your cutlery, and your napkin. You may have a side dish or bowl for a small salad or bread.
Formal affairs will have more on the table. Glasses for red and white wine, a water goblet, bread plates, soup and salad bowls, if the affair is really fancy, you may even have multiple plates and cutlery for different courses, such as a salad fork, cheese fork, dinner fork, and dessert fork, a soup spoon, a tea or coffee spoon, and a dessert spoon. The image above is a good example of what a formal dining affair may look like, although the more formal the event, there more there may be on the table (or, if you're being served, you may be brought different utensils at different points in the meal). The image below however is a more informal affair, with the usual fork, knife, maybe two spoons, and a couple of glasses involved. There's also the "family dinner," which is a place setting that's more familiar, with a napkin on the plate and one set of cutlery.
Whichever type of event you attend, the rule is generally that you use your utensils from the outside in towards the centre. That means that whatever dish you're first presented with usually calls for the fork and/or spoon or knife the furthest away from it. When you're finished with that course, leave the utensils on the plate or just next to it so they'll be removed at the end of that course, and move in to the next set. It may seem daunting, but even if you have no idea whether the fork second to the left is for soup or salad, relax, don't worry about it, and use it when it's that fork's turn.
Have Fun, And Thank Your Host
As the night progresses, keep an eye on when things wind down (or when the event is scheduled to end), and make sure you're not the last person out. You don't want to overstay your welcome (unless you're asked to stay, of course). Before you leave, make sure to thank your host (or hosts, if there are more than one), and take your leave. If the event is huge, make the rounds and hit the important folks who put everything together, or the guest of honour. If you have to leave in a hurry, designate someone you trust to pass along the word that you have to leave, but follow up with the host later to thank them for the affair.
Obviously if you're at a large, anonymous event, you don't have to say goodbye to anyone, but it's always a good idea. I learned the benefit of this when my company CEO (at my last job) hosted a house party to thank our division for all the work we did to facilitate the move of our corporate headquarters. It was a long and arduous process, and he wanted to say thank you. It would have been easy to slip out as things were winding down, but after I made a point to thank him and let him know I had a wonderful time, he's remembered me ever since.
It may seem like the rules of etiquette are dense and imposing, but their intention is quite the opposite. By creating a set of social standards everyone can agree on, you remove the worry and doubt that comes with being in a situation where you want to relax, have fun, get to know some new people, and enjoy a nice meal or glass of wine with the people who invited you. Since the rules are (ideally) universal, knowing them lets you put yourself on autopilot and focus instead on being in the moment and having a good time -- not on whether or not your napkin is in the right place, or whether it's time to eat yet. Consider it a little structure or guidance, and as long as you look at it that way, you'll have a better time.
Do make sure you have a good time, too. The reason the host or organiser is throwing the event is to celebrate, or give everyone the opportunity to get together and celebrate a specific cause, event, or person, whether it's Christmas, a charity dinner, a campaign dinner, or just a friendly dinner party. No one has a party because they want everyone who attends to be miserable.