Summer was fun, with vacation and brunches and lazy days with friends and casual partying. But Fall brings the return of the bustling Social Season, starting with the opening nights of the Symphony, the Opera, Consular Receptions, and the myriad of exclusive Charity Galas that get so much media attention. Such grand occasions beckons the call for so many to brush up on big-city behavior for those who hope to make a favorable impression (not infamously memorable), especially for those new to the Circuit or hoping to be invited.
Herewith, an abbreviated guide to Gala Etiquette, organized around seven components of any soiree that can inspire faux pas. Heed this simple advice, and you’re sure to be fumble-free.
1. Galas are black-tie affairs. Men wear a tuxedo or formal dinner jacket. Women (or anyone dressed like one) wear a floor-length gown or a formal evening pantsuit (tuxedo fine, too).
2. Take care with your appearance. This is not the night to change at the office, as if going to a cocktail party in business casual.
3. Gentlemen: If you look like every other man in the room, congrats — you did nothing wrong!
4. Ladies: If you see other women in the same gown, you have two choices — handle it with humor, and let photographers snap you and your doppelgängers together, or fire your stylist on Monday.
5. Choose elegance over sexiness. If your decollete is so plunging that a dermatologist can perform a yearly exam on the spot, you’re showing too much skin. Save super-tight minis for nightclubs, and steampunk statements for Burning Man. At the same time, don’t bore us, please.
6. Never switch place cards on the table — a cardinal sin for which you might be excommunicated from the church of high society. The host put thought into figuring out who should be seated next to whom. Couples are split up to promote more conversation among guests.
7. If you have special dietary needs (vegan, celiac, life-threatening food allergies), alert your table host or the server before being seated and ideally before gala night. Caterers usually have vegetarian fare for 10 percent of the guests.
8. When navigating flatware, always start from the outside in. If you forget this rule, look at the person next to you (and hope they’re not looking to you for guidance).
9. Fork and knife? Two ways to go — European-style (fork in left hand, tines down, one index finger over the back of the fork, and knife in right) or American-style (fork in left, knife in right for cutting, then switching fork to right hand to eat the food). Never grip your fork tines down with your fingers clamped around it as if you’re holding a switchblade, unless you want to look like a complete rube.
10. Dinner rolls are eaten one bite at a time, by breaking a piece off the roll and popping that tiny piece into your mouth. Butter each bite individually, rather than slathering butter across the entire roll and tugging at the whole piece with your teeth. So ungainly.
11. Pay as much attention to the person on your right as on your left. Your seatmate might have been placed next to a dud — in which case, you’ll be saving him or her from a night of boredom.
12. Good introductions are a sign of good manners. Introduce your date to everyone you greet. If someone greets you but not your date, smooth the situation by making the intro yourself.
13. Develop a prearranged signal with your date to avert distress if you’ve forgotten someone’s name — placing a hand on your partner’s back, squeezing their hand, or a subtle throat-clearing. (A squeeze of the bottom will signal something else entirely.)
14. Mingle and jingle. Breaking away from your partner during cocktails or the after-party to chat with others is OK for short periods of time. Don’t leave him or her drifting like an iceberg in a foreign sea. The only ice we want to see is a 10-carat diamond on someone’s finger.
15. Be inclusive. If you’re the more talkative partner, include him or her in the chat with the royal “we.” Try: “We always enjoy supporting the Symphony on opening night” — as opposed to whispering, “I am saddled with a socially awkward date and have to make all the small talk myself!”
16. If a society photographer wishes to snap a photo of your date, and ignores you, don’t have a hissy fit. A real lady never pouts, and a gentleman understands completely.
17. Small talk is vital. Nobody goes to a gala night to eat dinner — in fact, most people haven’t had dinner for several weeks, trying to slim down for the big night. Galas are all about socializing, so conversation is required.
18. Ask questions of others; people love it when you’re interested in them. Try: “Did you travel anywhere this summer?” or “What is keeping you busy lately?” The latter is especially good for mingling with the wealthy, because they don’t always have day jobs but are always busy with projects.
19. Comment on the evening’s bill of fare or decor, safe topics. Examples: “Aren’t you excited about this evening’s program? I simply adore Mahler/Puccini/fill in the blank.”
20. Never discuss politics or religion. (Do I even have to say this?) Try books, movies, trashy TV shows. You may not find yourself discussing the finer points of astrophysics, but you’ll always have a pleasant time because no one will be offended.
21. Limit your chats to two minutes. Nobody wants to be saddled with someone talking at them endlessly, without being able to get a word in edgewise. We call those folks social barnacles. Stay away from them, matey.
22. Clap at the right time. At the Symphony, refrain from clapping between movements. At the opera, it is OK to applaud for a stirring aria or duet. In general, wait until the conductor puts the baton down to applaud.
23. Leave the wolf whistles, hooting and hollering for ball games. If you must shout your approval, please learn some basic Italian: “Bravo” is said to a man; “Brava” is said to a woman; “Bravi” is the appropriate word for two or more people.
24. When planning your attire, consider seatmates around you and whether you will block their lines of sight. You may love your awe-inspiring hat — but the people behind you did not pay for an obstructed view, or a towering Marge Simpson hairdo.
25. Coughing is inevitable, but please muffle yourself, and if you foresee the need for a candy to ease dry throat, unwrap the crinkly wrapper before the show starts, or during applause.
26. There may be no crying in baseball, but it’s OK to be moved to tears on gala night — our Symphony and Opera offer up world-class performances. Be a hero and come with linen handkerchief. Extra points if you bring a second (clean) hankie for your date.
SOCIAL MEDIA MANNERS
27. Limit your hashtag-able moments preferrably until after the engagement entirely. Not every second requires Instagram documentation, and marks you as a gala virgin, not a veteran. Cocktail hour? Fair game. Dinner? A pic or two of an amazing floral display or beautifully plated entree are OK. Post them, and then put your phone away.
28. Avoid trolling your Facebook/Twitter/Instagram accounts continuously. While staring into your smartphone in your lap, you’re ignoring your table mates, who spent hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to be with you. The only thing you should be fiddling with in your lap is a napkin. Besides, we hear paying attention to others enhances the experience.
29. During the performance, turn your phone off or put it on airplane mode. Nobody wants to hear a mysterious vibrating sound emanating from the person next to them (unless you’re at the Mitchell Bros. theater). Avoid this Silicon Valley bad-manners cliche.
30. If you take selfies to post on social media, avoid poses such as the dreaded duckface (pursing your lips in an attempt to look sexy, but going overboard and contorting them into a bill). You’re not a duck. Tonight, you’re a swan.
31. Good manners extend into the next day. If you’ve met new friends (and if you follow our advice, you will), follow up promptly via e-mail or social — or squander the opportunity to cement new connections.
32. If you’ve been lucky enough to have been a guest at someone’s table, send a handwritten thank-you note — the height of civility and grace. Hosts always remember these gestures of gratitude when it’s time to make invitations for next year’s gala.
Many of you chuckled reading this — which is good, as it’s a sign you’re already cognizant of the behavior that is expected for inclusion into the upper ranks of Society. For those that actually learned something, you may wish to wait to be invited rather than spin wheels trying to get on The List, at least until the above is unquestionably a natural expression. Just saying!