Party Manners, Before the Party Begins

Several months ago I agreed to host a party in New York for a friend's college reunion. This is the sort of thing that sounds easy at the time, when the calendar is empty, but then, suddenly, the day arrives, and panic sets in. I’m not prepared, because the party rental company sent the wrong supplies, the sort of thing that would send The Blushing Hostess into a dead faint: polyester napkins so slippery they wouldn’t stay on a lap, much less pick crumbs off one’s lips; dinner plates chipped and cracked; forks so lightweight that the tines were bent. Everything will be fine, it always is, but meantime, the hostesses cannot get here because of the Iceland ash. The friend for whom I am doing this favor seems to have disappeared as well. Carry on.

The dark clouds were parted by the (unintentionally) hilarious string of emails that arrived this morning, attached to a request to join tonight’s festivities. I gather the writers are young women, as they are class of this century. Only a bit older than my children. “It would be lovely to join. If so, is there anything I could bring? Also, I hope it’s not too much trouble but I do not eat meat or shellfish.” This last bit gave me pause. Enough of my friends are vegetarian that I’m always prepared, but this seemed a tad much. I read on.

“I just emailed them….and told them I was veggie. And it’s free--bonus!”

This is when I perked up, realizing I was eavesdropping on an email exchange between two friends. Delicious. I had wandered into Barbara Pym territory.

I dropped down to the bottom of the string, where it all began.  “Some posh girl is hosting the grads' party….how often do I get to see a giant pad… I think it will be rather surreal… maybe good to network though I guess I’m not sticking along that long… if you fancy it let me know!”

So are you staying for dinner, or not? Because I’m counting napkins. I have never set eyes on your school, this isn’t my apartment (I rent it from my friend, and though it isn’t giant, I do think it is stunningly beautiful). Must I always worry about disappointing? I’m afraid the only surreal touch will be the tines of the forks pointing in the wrong direction. Why on earth don’t I own forty of everything? Perhaps a door charge might be a good idea…Happily, though, a generous alum donated vats of champagne. I will have to uncork a bottle to test it.

The exchange continued:

“Sounds pretty amusing--so why not. I’m assuming it’s not for Zachary as well (I’m not sure he’d be particularly excited about it anyway.)”

Zachary? I haven’t got enough napkins.

 “An informal dinner, whatever that means...I was just going to wear something vaguely smart….you could always ask if Zachary wants to come?!”

I can see why I could never have been the headmistress of a girl’s school. Ladies: Informal means a buffet. Vaguely smart is generally a good rule for life. I hope it is no trouble for you not to eat meat or shellfish. And always leave unwilling Zacharys home.

This exchange provides an excellent life lesson in networking, no matter how long you intend to stick around (but do let me know, as I haven’t got enough plates either): Look both ways before hitting SEND. Cheers!


Ann Marie said...

Brillant!!! Thank you for always hitting the nail on the head....in so many ways. You speak for so many of us.

Karena said...

Oh so true Dominique, if you are serving that champagne everythign will be forgiven though!
Last minite I think we all need help, a special friend for those little touches, and oh yes did you wnat to use this serving spoon etc!!

Oh I have an interview up that I can picture your prose written on!

Art by Karena

Cindy Kilkenny said...

I always enjoyed your magazine work. Having a chance to read you more often is just one of life's little bonuses.

This is priceless.

Town and Country Mom said...

I discovered your blog through Reggie Darling, and I am so delighted to have found it! Enjoyed your columns and HG for years and years, and now I will enjoy the blog and your book! This post is perfectly timed and my husband and I are hosting an 18th birthday party for our oldest son. Casual--picnic, cook-out, barbecue, whatever. RSVPs, few and far between, were texted. Still. I'm stressing over ticking tablecloths and napkins. Dare I make do with paper plates, and so on. "Why don't I have 40 of anything?" just about sums it up. I know your dinner will be marvelous; I hope you have a moment to enjoy it!


I always hope Zachery will be left home,

Grant K. Gibson said...

What a great story and lesson!

Toad said...

Family parties are just as bad.

My rule has become, please yourself. Guests will enjoy themselves or not, but still bite.


Too too funny. I truly hope this was only humor. I shudder to think the electronic world will replace manners. But, I'm already afraid it has. People who are so busy with one of their gadgets they don't SEE anything, HEAR anything, don't LEARN anything & on & on. Hopefully, mothers & grandmothers will remain so someone can teach the children something. You rock, Dominique. If I knew your address I'd send you a note. xx's

red ticking said...

almost unreal how people can act.. i think you are so talented and so happy to have found you here. x

jessica said...

So funny, yet so unreal. And I know what you mean about those damned polyester napkins! So slippery; kinda like soft water and soap. Champagne will fix all the wrongs of the day, non? :)

Ann said...

I would have cancelled the event forthwith. Especially as the host wasn't going to be there. What a tiresome conversation between the two bubbleheads you inadvertently intercepted. One wishes they could read your blog. I guess at my age I no longer go all out for rude, superficial types. You have a healthy attitude about the event; I admire you.

tdm said...

Events like these always make my head spin when I'm in your role as the host...then again, those details are just things that matter immensely to you at that moment. Mind you, I fully appreciate a lovely space, and a beautifully set table - it is often a lot of hard work by someone. The care and attention I expend on these items shows that I care about the guests and the occasion. Sadly in these times, marvelous events like this don't seem to happen often in many people's lives.
I've learned a lot from my spouse's family too. By just showing up, as a 'ready to please' guest, the most amazing exchanges can, and do occur spontaneously. So, to your 'something smart' guests: Wear 'something smart',drop the attitude, and share yourself. Be open to meeting new people, be honest, approachable, and who knows, along with seeing a new party setting, you might find yourself in a transformative event - the one that you'll be sharing with others over tables for weeks and weeks.

Bridget said...

I just found your blog a few weeks ago and immediately ordered your book (just got a note there's a slight delay but I'm sure it will be worth the wait). I always enjoyed your columns before and I'm glad I can read your musings again.
As I've gotten older, I've realized how important manners are and how many people are lacking. Their mothers and grandmothers would not be proud!

Notes from a Broad said...

Very funny !
As long as this was meant to be between two people and not shared with you, I guess it isn't really that rude, is it ?
Just a bad case of email gone wrong.
I wish we knew what Zachary had to say about it all .

Dominique said...

Yes, I agree, Ms. Broad, the notes probably weren't meant to be shared...but it also may have been that the Bright Young Things didn't even think that their exchange might have a cutting edge (to their rather sensitive hostess). My own manners, in sharing it, are also perhaps questionable, but I have learned about blogging that everything must be material. And the lesson is one everyone I know has learned the hard way.

I can't recall how many times people at the office sent emails ABOUT a person TO that person by mistake, because they weren't extra careful....with disastrous results.

In any case, the party went well, an extremely interesting group of people; Zachary would have enjoyed it I feel certain. I have stumbled into a little party rental scam and called American Express--warnings to all. I think tdf put it beautifully: drop the attitude and share yourself! great advice. champagne helps, of course. And now, back to the laundry.

Karena, beautiful cast bronze work featured on your site; excellent find!

victoria thorne said...


This will rank, forevermore, as one of my top-ten favorite blog posts, for more reasons than I can begin to list (chief among them: manners -- as my mother always told us -- count).

For each of these reasons, a thousand thanks.

Vava (aka Virginia) said...

Ahhhhhh, and I teach (or try to) these Bright Young Things "to be comfortable in social situations" aka manners/cotillion. My tag line is "...because nice matters." Dominique - this is spot on, sad, but more the norm than not.

Chatelaine said...

First time visit to your blog. I enjoyed your post. I totally agree with you. I had a party at Christmas and some people Rsvp'd and didn't show and didn't call. 2 people told me that they forgot about the party (oh that made me feel better!) and others didn't respond to the paper invite or the email. Manners are hard to come by these days.

I hope Zachary found himself another girlfriend.

david terry said...

Ms Browning?....
I expect you could rake in a LOT of cash if you announced that you were going to be personally hosting a $50-per-person "Can You Believe THIS?" session....at which all of your fans over forty could sit around and trade tales of the worst behavior they've recently experienced. I'd be there in a flash, just for the opportunity of saying "Okay?...I'm NOT being a prissy old lady here, am I? Wasn't that just incredibly RUDE??? Please agree with me...?"

My recent "Bad Party Manners" (I think you enjoyed my recent reference to a "fete worse than death"?) tales include:

1. Not once, but twice over the past year or so, I've invited otherwise perfectly-fine folks over for an 8-person dinner (not some huge party or reception, at which it really doesn't matter if the head-count varies by 10 or so people). Not once, but twice, I have spent all day preparing a dinner party for these people....and n-o-n-e of them showed up....or called. Each time?...the "guests" (odd thing to call folks who never showed up) telephoned a few days later to chipperly inquire "So...how WAS the party? I bet it was WONderful! sorry we couldn't come that night, but some things came up....Now, I promise we'll make it to the next one!". All of this without the slightest trace of chagrin.

All I can figure is that a whole lot of folks, these days, spend all their time in restaurants (although, even in that venue, presumably one calls to cancel a reservation) and don't really entertain....and just don't "GET IT" when they're invited to an actual dinner.

2. My Favorite (which would cause my grandmother and great aunts' jaws to automatically dislocate):

On a fairly regular basis I throw large (by my standards, that's more than 75 people and lasting all evening) parties. And, yes, there's usually the predictable scattering of prominent artists or writers (mess around in this business for long enough, and it's inevitable that you become friends with at least several). On three different occasions?.... an invitee has called me to giddily announce that he/she would LOVE to come...and is so THRILED to hear that "____" or "____" is also going to be there!

Then? I get a call or email asking me (once again, with absolutely no sense of "We Just Don't DO this!") a variation on "I really want to come, but Saturday's getting kind of packed.....can you let me know exactly when _____ is going to be there on Saturday night? I really do want to meet him/her..."

The last time this happened, I tersely said "I know....you're going to think I'm a really unskilled pimp....but I don't KNOW when he and his wife will show up. Should I tell them you need to know?.. And Thank You for the compliment?"

I should emphasize that there are plenty of perfectly well-behaved folks who drift in and out of this joint....but some of the ill-mannered ones are ill-mannered in some strikingly new&original ways.

La Plus ca Change....


David Terry

david terry said...

P.S. In regard to your final line? Give yourself the pleasure (this will cost you 99 big-cents) of downloading Carrie Newcomer's "Don't Push 'Send'". You'll find the song (do scroll down to the bottom of the playlist) at:

the lyrics begin with:
"This is a story a very sad tale
Of intrigue, romance. and electronic mail
A dangerous form of information, and the perils of instant gratification
How many times did I hit my Mac, want to crawl inside and take the whole thing back?
But its just no use. Say it again and again
Don't push "send"....
Advisedly yours,

David Terry

home before dark said...

Oh my, what a lovely bit of material going on here. I thought you were quite gracious to take on this task of entertaining the young and the restless. What Jane Austin could do with all this electronic opportunity to mess up and mess with people's lives. Makes me smile at the thought.

Notes from a Broad said...

I learned my Email Gone Bad lesson years ago, when I was complaining to a good friend about a family member and with that family member in mind, sent it to them.

I learned the lesson of not complaining about a person in writing ( of any sort) and how to Grovel and that some people are Very Forgiving.

My husband had friends who were very smart and "quippy" and could be sarcastic and cutting about each other, to your face or not .. not meant in any way to be hurtful, but to top each other in their "bitchiness " .. Most of the time they were hilarious to just listen to and I fear I was very young and impressionable when I met them and picked up a few of their habits.

So I and my Bright Not so Young Thing Friends, still make cutting and sarcastic remarks about this one and that one, but we just don't get caught doing it in emails.
This would be my advice to those girls... use the telephone !

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Oh, this did make me laugh.
I'm afraid I would have been sorely tempted to cancel the whole thing and go to the movies.

Jeanne said...

Agree with Pamela...the movies and the champagne !

Mackenzie Carpenter said...

Oh my. You don't have 40 place settings? Well, House Beautiful this month, the eco-friendly kitche of the RFK Jrs is featured, and they mention, in an interview, that they have 100-150 people over for tag football EVERY SUNDAY.

That's a lot of napkins, and I'll bet they're not paper... OR polyester.

Julie said...

I smiled, I winced, I laughed out loud. Thank you for the ray of sunshine that is your writing!

Fran Pelzman Liscio said...

Just discovered this wonderful post. I attended Manhattanville College in the 70's. Two of the Sisters would host a beautiful banquet of international food for the residents of the dorm every year. My friend, in the dorm, called me up and asked me if I would like to attend. Would I? A perpetually starving art major? Certainly. I enjoyed a delicious meal, thanked the Sisters, and sent a thank you note. After all, I didn't even live in that dorm and still enjoyed the nice meal. But I also felt a little extra appreciation was in order for these generous Sisters in the face of the sometimes aloof and entitled reactions of a few of the attendees: "ew, what's that?" "Uh, no. Not that. Just give me some of that." "Hmm. Nah." "More."
Some of the kids were appreciative, but I was surprised at the bored entitlement expressed by some.