In an effort to gather all my writing in one place, every Monday I post articles that originally appeared elsewhere, or work that has been gathering dust on my hard drive. This piece was originally titled “The Non-Expert: Threesomes” and was published in 2003 over at The Morning News. The Non-Expert series answers questions posed by Morning News readers. Thanks to Rosecrans Baldwin, who edited this piece.
I know I’m going to get a lot of grumbles on this one, especially because it’s written in such an unfamiliar tone. Please remember that the idea behind these etiquette articles isn’t that you should be perfecty-perfect all the time, which would make you insufferable, only that you should know the guidelines. That way you have the pleasure of feeling wicked and bohemian when you flout them.
My late grandmother had fantastically eccentric decorating taste. In the living room immense zebra-striped curtains stretched to the ceiling, the red shag carpet came to your knees. I spent many spin-sick childhood hours on the swivel stools of her tiki bar, replete with coconut monkey and glass hula-girl swizzle sticks.
She also kept a noticeably unattractive gilded bust of Nefertiti on her living room table. When I asked her where it came from she replied, ‘Well, Margaret, an older gentleman friend of mine has arthritis. That bust is covered in 14-karat gold. His hands were too bad for him to paint the gold on, so he held the paintbrush in his mouth.’
‘Wow,’ I replied. I was seven.
‘Yep,’ she said. ‘That thing is goddamn terrible. But I tell you what, when a man paints something for you with his teeth, you put it on the living-room table.’
Grandma also taught me more general etiquette guidelines. For example, one does not wear white shoes before Memorial Day or after Labor Day. This rule remains steadfast unless you happen to be a bride, a tennis player, or a pimp. In the latter case, you have more pressing etiquette issues than your choice of wingtips.
You may know etiquette basics, but knowing the niceties is twice as much fun. This is because there are a few things that nearly everyone does incorrectly without realizing it. Therefore, you can scandalize your friends in expensive restaurants by removing fish bones from your mouth with your hands and blithely grasping asparagus with your fingers.
What’s more, you can learn to avoid inadvertently offending those you hope to impress, and impress people who know how the playbook reads. One person’s ‘No big deal’ is another’s ‘Well, I never.’ Nowhere is this more apparent than at social gatherings. Let’s review what grandma expects of you.
Don’t throw parties in your own honor.
Throwing a birthday party, a shower, or an anniversary party for yourself lacks humility. It also suggests that the party is a poorly camouflaged push for gifts, instead of a heartfelt expression of affection from a dear friend. The guest of honor and the host must be two different people so that one can say, ‘Oh no, you don’t need to get me anything. The pleasure of your company is all I need,’ while the other whispers, ‘She’s very fond of Tiffany’s.’
Never issue invitations too far in advance.
Overzealous hosts who send invitations several weeks in advance are setting social traps. How can the polite, but unwilling, friend possibly find a reasonable excuse? ‘I’m having surgery that day’ only works once, and it’s rather unpleasant to arrange for the scarring as evidence. Polite hosts send invitations no more than a week and a half beforehand unless the event will require travel arrangements (as in the case of a wedding).
Respond to invitations promptly.
When someone invites you out you have approximately two days to respond. If you’re not going to attend for goodness sake say something. Are you coyly holding out for a better offer, you clever thing? Do you suppose you’re being discreet by simply showing up at the event when nothing more interesting comes along? I assure you, the host—who is now scrambling to provide food and drink for you and five others of your ilk—knows exactly what you were up to and is already plotting revenge. Do you really want this person mixing your drink?
Remember that invitations are non-negotiable.
Accepting only a portion of an invitation is rude. ‘Oh, I would so love to hear little Timmy perform on his new banjo, but that evening is awfully busy. Would it be possible for us to just drop in for coffee afterward?’ No, it wouldn’t.
If you’ve said you will attend, please do.
Once you’ve said you’re coming there are a few acceptable excuses for not showing. These include sudden coma, the death of a loved one, or having left the country unexpectedly under government protection. Unacceptable excuses include heavy workload, exhaustion, a better offer, or the ever-thoughtful ‘just feel like staying in.’ This implies that a nap or the Sunday-night showing of National Lampoon’s European Vacation is more interesting to you than whatever your host had planned.
Handle introductions gracefully.
Introductions should include first and last names. This way guests can locate one another if they’d like to pursue a ‘closer friendship.’ More importantly, they needn’t call each other by first names until asked to do so. By American custom acquaintances greet one another and take leave with handshakes. If you insist upon hugging non-intimates you can be reasonably certain that people are making funny faces over your shoulder when swallowed in an unwelcome embrace.
Don’t offer or request a house tour.
Tours of your home should only be given upon request, lest you look as though you’re showing off your bowling trophies. Genuinely interested guests should request tours vaguely, ‘I’d love to see the what you’ve done with the house sometime.’ This way your hosts can politely deflect the inquiry if they’ve stuffed their dirty laundry in the study.
Know the difference between business and pleasure.
One does not properly hand out business cards at a social event, even if another guest makes a business-related request. Doing so implies that you’re using friends’ homes for mercenary purposes. Perhaps you can find a small piece of paper and a pen instead. If you’d like to be perfectly correct, you can have slightly larger social cards printed with only your name and contact information. And please stop chuckling: a girl can dream.
Don’t groom or perform otherwise personal acts in public.
No absent-minded cleaning beneath the fingernails, no after-dinner tooth sucking or picking, no stocking straightening, no undergarment adjustment, no hair patting, no lipstick application, and no overtly moist displays of affection.
Repackage prepackaged food.
Under no circumstances does the well-set table include prepackaged food items. Ketchup, mustard, jam, and so on are housed in jolly, lidded pots with wee-little spoons. Milk goes in a pitcher. The only exception to this rule is the wine, which you can put in a decanter if you’ve one laying around (perhaps next to the silver grapefruit spoons), but otherwise is fine in its own bottle.
Keep conversation comfortable.
I shouldn’t even have to say this, but certain segments of the population need a reminder that religion, politics, and anecdotes involving excessive bleeding are not proper dinner conversation.
Send a thank-you.
A host gift isn’t required for dinner parties (though gifts are almost never rude), but you do need to write a proper thank-you note.
So, what is a proper thank-you note? Let’s start with your little box of ‘Thank You’ note cards tucked in your desk drawer. The kind with preprinted gratitude stamped on the front? First, I’d like to congratulate you for being amongst the few who still realize that thoughtful gestures are correctly recognized with a note. Now, throw those cards away. Please.
Thank-you notes should indeed be notes. They’re written on white or cream stationery with a plain—but colorful—border. Blue is a classic choice. (And while you’re dispensing with the thank-you cards, you might want to discard the sympathy cards, which are even more impersonal. Purchase some white or cream paper with a black border, and use that instead.)
After you’ve expressed your gratitude remember that it’s your turn next time. You may entertain in whatever manner you can afford; a Sunday breakfast is an acceptable return for a formal dinner. Many people will tell you not to worry about social debts. You’ll note that these are the same people who don’t throw dinner parties.
If you’ve read this far you deserve a reward. So here is the answer to the ultimate etiquette question, the only reason 90 percent of the population will ever flip through an etiquette book:
Use the fork farthest away from your plate.
That’s it. If you need a different fork, someone will set it down in front of you with the correct course. If you still somehow manage to use the wrong one, no one will notice. Anyone watching you to see which fork you’ll use is just trying to figure out which fork they should use, which is really rather sweet.