Invitations and utensils--etiquette is still confusing

December 13, 1992|By Kathleen Purvis | Kathleen Purvis,Knight-Ridder News Service

From political correctness to the simple matter of elbows off the table, today's dinner table is set with land mines of etiquette.

Food writer Craig Claiborne has heard your whimpers for help. Mr. Claiborne has been many things -- food editor of the New York Times, chef, cookbook author -- but he has always been known as an experienced host. This year, he decided to share that experience with a new book, "Elements of Etiquette, A Guide to Table Manners in an Imperfect World" (William Morrow & Co., $15.) Though his standards are formal, his advice is timeless and timely, on everything from placement of forks to how to handle guests who smoke.

Now that the entertaining season is under way, we thought you'd like a refresher course on the state of manners today. So sit up straight, smile politely and try this quiz, with answers from Mr. Claiborne's book.

1. A new friend invites you and your husband over for dinner for the first time. You're a vegetarian and your husband is allergic to all cheeses. Do you tell your hostess beforehand, or just take your chances with the menu?

2. It's a busy week for you. First you receive an invitation by mail to a wedding and the reception-dinner to follow. Then a business associate telephones to invite you to a cocktail party at her home. Before you congratulate yourself on your popularity, how will you reply to each invitation?

3. You and your husband are invited to a dinner. But your husband will be out of town. Can you accept the invitation on your own?

4. For women: You've been invited to a formal, sit-down dinner. Must you wear an evening gown?

5. For men: Your busy social calendar lands you two invitations in one night. The first is a formal party -- tuxedo required; the second is an informal meal at a private home. By a miracle of timing, you can attend both events. But should you wear the tuxedo to the second event?

6. You've been invited for dinner; when you offer to bring dessert, your hostess tells you that won't be necessary. But you hate to arrive empty-handed, so you pick out a nice bottle of wine. Your hostess accepts the gift with thanks, but it disappears into the kitchen and never reappears at the table. Should you feel slighted?

7. You're giving a party. One couple arrives in a foul mood and proceeds to re-enact "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Your other guests are becoming uncomfortable. What should you do?

8. You really don't like smoking in your home, but one of your guests lights up anyway. What should you do this time?

ANSWERS:

1. When it comes to your dietary needs, honesty is the best policy. Says Mr. Claiborne: "It is truly discourteous to allow your host to go to the trouble of preparing foods that have every chance of not being eaten. It is far better, and not at all offensive, to accept the invitation by saying, 'Of course we would love to come, but please let me tell you about our special food situation, so that you can decide if we will fit in with your plans.' "

2. The rule of thumb is to reply to an invitation in the same way you received it: Accept telephoned invitations with telephoned replies; answer a formal, written invitation with a handwritten note. The exception to the formal invitation: If the RSVP is followed by a phone number, a telephoned answer is acceptable.

3. If you're invited to a dinner as a couple but both of you are unable to attend, you should explain that to your host and turn the invitation down. That gives him a chance to invite another couple. Of course, if your host insists you come on your own, it's fine to do so.

4. Women have a little latitude in fashion these days. A short-skirted dinner dress or evening slacks of satin or velvet are as appropriate as a gown.

5. If you can make a quick change from the tuxedo into something less formal, you should do it. If not, wear the tuxedo to the less formal event, but offer a short explanation. Don't take off the black tie and jacket, though. "To do so would give the appearance of someone ready to retire for the evening," says Mr. Claiborne.

6. If you bring a gift of food or drink without being asked, don't expect to see it served at dinner. Your contribution was a gift to the hostess. If it fits with her menu, she may serve it, but she's not obligated to do so.

7. As the host, you are responsible for the comfort of all your guests. You have every right to draw a warring couple aside and firmly request a cease-fire.

8. If you really can't tolerate smoking in your house, or if one of the other guests has a severe health problem to consider, make it clear when issuing the invitation, and provide an outdoor area where guests can smoke. Other than that, the polite thing to do is to provide an ashtray. Says Mr. Claiborne: "I am afraid the polite host will just have to tolerate it. I am personally not a defender of cigarette smoking in public, but I think it is important that we bear in mind that smoking started as a social activity. Cigarette smoking in notoriously difficult to stop, and you should not make your guests feel like walking health hazards because of their addiction."

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