As we hurtle with gusto towards end-of-year parties, it’s time to draw a knife-line in a sponge cake to mark acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour.
If the words ‘cocktail party’ leave you in a cold sweat, you are not alone – the prospect of this type of event can be fraught with tension for even the most experienced social butterflies. But if you follow my etiquette suggestions, you will avoid disastrous gaffes, and be a fantastic, enviable, social success.
Rule number one – avoid the cluster. If you see a huddle of people in a tight little circle – do not enter. Such groups do not welcome the invasion, and you could even be sending mixed messages with your overtures.
Case in point: years ago at a cocktail party in Vienna I decided to leave my colleagues by the buffet and ‘work the room’. The responses were not encouraging – a mix of taciturn glances, clicking of heels and dropping of heads – but I soldiered on, thrusting my hand out and introducing myself. After 40 exhausting minutes I began to wonder if the effort had been worthwhile – no one was responding with any warmth. As I collapsed near the hot canapés, our Viennese host asked what on earth I had been doing – and responded to my description of my social endeavours with a look of alarm.
“Mein Gott Annabelle! In Vienna only very forward lady escorts approach men with their hand and first name in that situation.” She was not amused, but my workmates thought it hilarious. One man with a monocle kept winking at me and getting quite pink in the cheeks. In the end I had to do a ‘French exit’ – a wonderful term for just disappearing without fanfare from a social gathering.
So, after this experience, if I see a huddle or closed circle I leave it be.
However, if you want to be warm and engaging when talking in a group, open up the huddle by turning your body outwards slightly so others can join in. When they do, introduce people (name badges are critical for some events), and give the person entering the group some idea of what you are all talking about – “Susie, we are just talking about cycling in Vietnam” or “Frank was discussing his root canal surgery next week”.
Getting extra fussy about the food and drink at a party is bad form. For example, asking if the calamari is male or female as it’s passed around with the aïoli is frowned on. Indeed, pretentiousness about food and wine is never acceptable, and even more irritating when in close proximity at a social gathering. When you are a guest and not paying, it is simply rude. (For the record, female calamari is sweeter.)
Don’t eat to excess. If you know you will be hungry, eat something before you arrive. There is nothing worse than the person who hoovers up the spring rolls, leaving nothing for anyone else.
Leave your cellphone in your bag – filming people or taking selfies at a party is not a good idea.
Start conversations with a few open questions to find out more about the people you’re chatting to. Curiosity and interest beyond yourself and your immediate world is a vastly underrated feature of life in 2015. It’s incredibly charming when natural and without agenda – add some humour, and it’s like liquid gold.
Finally, when it is time to leave, thank the host. And remember, it’s considered bad form to head off before any presentations. If you are mixing with royalty or important guests like a Rear Admiral of the Fleet, don’t leave before they do – it’s a protocol matter.
So there you have it. Follow a few simple rules and you’ll be the toast of the party. Just watch out for too much toasting. Knocking back the champers like water could lead to jumping on the table, lip-syncing a raunchy song with Fred from Accounts, or giving the CEO a kiss. Being the ‘life and soul’ of the party is not always desirable.
Words by Annabelle White
Photos by Getty Images