In over my head
February 9, 2010 10:55 PM   Subscribe

My girlfriend has etiquette and class - I don't. Help!

I need to know about etiquette, style, class. Her family owns - well, a few highly successful businesses. I don't know which fork to use on my salad. I kept putting this off, but now we're going to go to a wine and cheese party and I know I'm in way over my head. Podcast/books/websites? Help!
posted by TheDukeofLancaster to Grab Bag (28 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Just do what other people do.

As for books, there's always Emily Post.

Ask her if you're dressed appropriately before leaving (though she'll probably say so if you're not.) Try not to fart\curse\chew your nails\etc. Don't order a drink with more than two ingredients unless it was invented 50 years ago or more. Don't use the word garçon.

Don't worry about it.
posted by sanko at 11:09 PM on February 9, 2010

There are a bunch of questions about this already. Eg. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

What do you need to know that is not covered in those questions?
posted by salvia at 11:09 PM on February 9, 2010

Don't overthink these things!

-Use curse words.
-Speak negatively about any other person, regardless of their being in the room or not.
-Scratch yourself or refer to bodily functions.
-Overindulge on the refreshments, take everything in moderation, even if it's really delicious.
-Pretend to be someone you're not.

-Politely engage in small talk, and genuinely convey interest in the wellbeing of others, including strangers.
-Ask for the opinions of others on things like wine and cheese, and share your positive opinions of the same.
-Take turns speaking in conversation.
-Compliment the host on something you know they've done or provided (the food, decor, other guests, etc) that you actually enjoy.
-Be certain that your girlfriend is having a good time, and take steps to rectify the situation if she is not.

More often than not, just copying other people will have you doing the appropriate thing. Never be too proud to ask your girlfriend if something is okay or not. If you're actually nice, and actually truthful, and pay attention to the happiness of other people, you'll seem like the classiest fellow in the room. It's people who try too hard who come off as classless.

As for the forks, if following the lead of the host fails you (and if they are a good host, they shouldn't have failed you, or it really doesn't matter,) start on the left and go in. The outermost fork goes with the first course, the next course's fork is to the right of that, and so-on. At a wine and cheese party, chances are you'll be standing around and mingling, and there should be plenty of extra utensils so that flavors don't get mingled when they aren't supposed to.
posted by Mizu at 11:13 PM on February 9, 2010 [10 favorites]

It might be my shy self speaking here, but a certain amount of "mouth closed, eyes open" might be appropriate here. Rather than barging in full force, hang back a bit, and try and mimic the behavior of others who seem to be situationally appropriate.
posted by mollymayhem at 11:18 PM on February 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Your girlfriend knows that you're not familiar with all of the picky-sticky rules, right? She should be your best ally. She should give you the lowdown on the major players, a handful of safe smalltalk subjects, and anything absolutely NOT to say. (e.g. Uncle Frank is a total drunk, for fuck's sake just ignore EVERYTHING he does.)

Actual food & drink etiquette for a wine & cheese party is pretty easy, all things considered. Just be polite and remember that being gracious is more important than being fed. (Eat beforehand.) Don't talk with your mouth full and don't load up a plate with a ton of food. Keep track of how many times the waiter nicely tops off your glass so that you don't accidentally drink five glasses of wine and think you've had one-and-a-half.

Socially, you're in a good entry-level situation. Just let people talk. Ask very safe questions, nod, smile, respond to interesting information with nice, neutral statements like "ohh, how interesting." If you faux pas and get a reaction like "huh? how is that interesting?" you can backpedal easily with "ohh, the way you described it, I just never thought of it like that." Just get 'em talking again.

Come up with a standard story and a few things to share that you'll be comfortable using as small talk. Vet them with your girlfriend.

Hand signals worked out in advance with your gf are totally okay. A sign for rescuing, a sign of shark-infested water: So, you need "c'mere, now!" and "ixnay!"

You can go a looooong way by being quiet and gracious. Smile.
posted by desuetude at 11:19 PM on February 9, 2010

Best answer: Don't worry about it.

Had your girlfriend desired a paragon of social correctness for a beau, I'm sure she knows plenty of chinless wonders who would have suited. Instead, she chose you. This suggests two likely scenarios:

1) You are so intrinsically charming that you've no need for acquired social graces. You are, as it were, one of nature's gentlemen. If this is so, your charm will work on all her relatives and friends, and you'll be fine. Your habit of tossing hunks of cheese up into the air and catching them in your underpants before fishing them out and eating them will be seen as delightfully natural and unaffected. You may even start a trend.

2) Your girlfriend is what we etiquette mavens call a 'trade queen'. Your general boorishness and lack of couth are what fascinates her. In this case, all your ball-scratching and eructation will only drive her wild with desire. She wants Mater and Pater and Great-Aunt Iphigenia to be horrified by the fact that her new bedmate is a barely-housebroken gorilla.

Either way, you'll be fine.
posted by eatyourcellphone at 11:33 PM on February 9, 2010 [40 favorites]

If you start to say something you shouldn't have started to say, just stop. Don't even worry about explaining it. Just stop talking. Somebody else will figure out what to do.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:36 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, Your Highness, I would have thought an important Duke such as yourself would have had finishing school.

No matter. The key to all of this is graciousness. That means in regular interactions, giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. It also means finding the best in everyone. Finally, it also means thinking about what would put those with you most at ease by taking their needs into consideration. This includes being polite and not doing things that might offend, gross out, annoy or otherwise bother. You can ask about the knives, nobody's going to think less of you.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:46 PM on February 9, 2010

- Ask your girlfriend if there are any specific house rules she wants you to obvserve.
- Do not start eating or drinking before someone senior to you has started (otherwise you risk copying some rude younger cousin)
- Do not tuck the napkin in your collar, spread it out on your lap.
- Hands on the table, not your lap (this is one of those things that developed when people still wore weapons to the table)
- Elbows NOT on the table
- Do not get drunk. Not even slightly. You want your wits tonight.
- Beforehand, practice explaining what you do for a living, what you plan to do and what your hobbies are. Someone will ask. Make it easy to understand.
- Don't try to impress, it will make you act weird. It's perfectly ok to not know anything about wine. In fact, it means you can ask people about their favourite wines and what makes them great. People like talking about themselves.
posted by Omnomnom at 11:47 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Never complain, never explain. Keep a stiff upper lip. Avoid excessive familiarity with the servants.
posted by orthogonality at 12:02 AM on February 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

A small tip from wine country...hold your glass by the stem, not by the bowl for two reasons: one it keeps the bowl clear of sticky fingerprints so you can better appreciate the color and clarity of the wine, and secondly, your hand won't warm up the wine. When there are winemakers or collectors present, they appreciate the respect that shows. When it's just us peasants, we act according to the quality of the wine. Two-Buck Chuck, who cares?
posted by Gusaroo at 12:06 AM on February 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'll admit that I don't know the 100% prim-and-proper procedural rules, but the following has shielded me from any major faux pas here in the U.S..

My top two rules would be as follows: 1. Do as you see others doing. And, 1.1, don't drink so much you can't follow the first rule.

If you've already told your girlfriend you haven't been to one of these shindigs before, tell her. Let her know you'll be following her lead. If you're both conscientious about that arrangement, that will take care of more than 90% of any possible chances for you to embarrass yourself. If, when you express this to her, she's not terribly concerned about it, trust her that you probably have very little to worry about.

Forks are simple. Again, follow the lead of others. This should be pretty easy to be laid back about as you don't want to seem overeager to stuff yourself. If you notice everyone keeping their forks in their left hand, tines down, with knife in right, follow suit. If you don't notice that, you can almost stop worrying about the procedural stuff altogether as they're probably not too concerned with "proper" etiquette.

Take smaller swigs of wine than you would normally. This will make it easier to swallow anything you might not like that you've already put in your mouth. If others are consuming their entire portions, you probably don't have a ton to worry about, as they're likely becoming less and less cognizant of what you're doing.

All this, keeping my elbows off the table with napkin in lap and please-thank-you-you're-welcome-thanks-for-inviting-me-I-enjoyed-myself(!) with a polite smile have done well for me.
posted by The Potate at 12:08 AM on February 10, 2010

Ah, Ironmouth beat me to the joke. :-)

The one thing I have to add is from a career-networking site I saw, and still good advice in social situations where you're meeting a lot of people: when you're walking around, hold both your glass and plate in your left hand, so you can have your right at the ready for handshakes. Surprisingly few people keep this in mind.

You probably already know this, and it's a bit specialized, but I've seen too many people Doing It Wrong at these things to be silent: if there's Brie or the like around, just take a slice instead of scooping out the soft part in the middle. The rind is edible, and delicious.

Actually, if you want to play it really safe, you might want to watch someone else eat any unfamiliar foods before you try them. The first time I tried artichokes, I thought you just popped the whole petal in your mouth. Two or three minutes of chewing later, I realized my mistake and made a tactical withdrawal to the restroom so I could spit it out. #LFMF
posted by tellumo at 12:30 AM on February 10, 2010

(ok, that was three things)
posted by tellumo at 12:31 AM on February 10, 2010

OK really, wine and cheese is easy. Don't panic until you have to go to a formal sit-down dinner. (If that happens, I suggest Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior over Emily Post. Probably get a copy for general reference anyway.)

A wine and cheese party is normally a stand-up affair, not a seated meal. Food should either be canapés circulated on trays by staff or (less likely) buffet tables with small plates. Cutlery will be very limited and there will be no knives to deal with.

Remember the following set of One Two Rules for an event like this:

- One plate and/or one napkin at a time.
- One or two food items off circulated trays at a time. This is Hors d'œuvre and not a meal.
- Canapés are small and should be consumed in one or two bites. Choose wisely off the trays.
- Do not drink more than two glasses of wine. Assuming the wine is served in glassware as opposed to plastic cups, hold the glass by the stem.
- If this turn out to be a crowd of Serious Wine Drinkers, it is easy to play along. You can gently swirl your glass once, peer into it for a moment, and then lift the glass to your nose and take a one-second sniff and a two second sniff before drinking it. This suggests you are considering the wine, but of course you would never comment on the selection of your hosts so you're totally off the hook there.
- Unfortunately, the staff at these events is often treated as mobile robots. A simple two-word "thank you" is sufficient to demonstrate you are not an arse. Do not tip at a private party, ever.
- Come prepared with one or two questions to make small talk with guests. "How do you know (the host)?" is good. "How long have you lived in Whereverville?" is another. Do not ask people what they do for a living unless someone tells you when introducing them or they mention it.

Above all, be friendly and polite and do not get drunk because you are nervous. If you don't know what to do in a particular situation, watch your girlfriend and follow her lead.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:57 AM on February 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Etiquette is 99% politeness and 1% knives and forks. You'll be fine. Nobody will mind if you pick up the wrong spoon.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 2:32 AM on February 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Eat something light before you go (do not mention that you've done this, though) so you are not drinking on an empty stomach (not that you're going to drink much anyway, right?) and you won't be terribly hungry as it is wine and cheese, not wine and dinner. Enjoy!
posted by cestmoi15 at 5:00 AM on February 10, 2010

Oh, and if you're worried about what to wear, ask the girlfriend. We love that!
posted by cestmoi15 at 5:01 AM on February 10, 2010

If this is taking place at someone's house, please bring a host/hostess gift. A little box of chocolates, some pastries; anything that won't put the host/hostess out in any way (so, NOT flowers, because then they have to go searching for a vase and then cut the stems and find someplace for them to go). Make it something they can use later. And when it's over, hand-write a thank you card and mail it.
posted by cooker girl at 5:44 AM on February 10, 2010


Be yourself. The girl likes you because of you, if you go changing she might just see you as another form of a family member and resent what you have become. Also, there's no need to remake yourself for others, so just be yourself, if that makes you "not right" then you're better off. No need to be hating your in-laws years from now because you never feel like you can be "yourself" around them.

That being said, there are general public courtesies which have been mentioned above: chewing nails, farting, ... anything where you wouldn't want someone doing it in front of you at a party you're throwing.

And as stated before, ask the girlfriend if you look nice. good luck.
posted by zombieApoc at 6:02 AM on February 10, 2010

I feel like Old Money is much weirder to deal with, but if her family owns businesses, then they're probably New Money, which is basically just Everybody Loves Raymond plus Swarovski crystals, so you should be okay.

Perfectly said.
posted by zombieApoc at 6:50 AM on February 10, 2010

Etiquette and class are mostly about:

1) pretending that humans are not animals.
2) not offending anybody.

The classy person has no bodily needs -- he eats not because he's hungry, but because it's dinner. This is why he doesn't wolf down his food or make noises or anything. It's just a ritual. The classy person does not offend anybody. That's why he sticks to empty small talk and is exceedingly polite and mild.

I wouldn't worry too much about which fork to use.
posted by callmejay at 7:12 AM on February 10, 2010

Eat before you go.
Don't get tipsy.
When in doubt regarding etiquette, follow someone's lead.
posted by terpia at 8:35 AM on February 10, 2010

2nding Miss Manners; she'd funny and charming.
posted by theora55 at 9:41 AM on February 10, 2010

nthing Miss Manners.

In the unlikely event you have to cut the cheese yourself, cut it so as to leave the cheese in its original shape.

The reason for this rule will become apparent after 25 people who don't know it have left a completely massacred cheese that nobody wants.

Oh, and the larger the party, the less important it is to bring a hostess gift. They're not, strictly, speaking, required at most occasions anyway, though it's obviously a very nice common practice.

It's far more important to write a thank-you note to the host/ess straight afterwards, and then reciprocate according to your means and tastes with another invitation at some point. (According to your means and tastes: i.e. you don't have to throw a wine and cheese party for the exact same number of people, or invite back people you've decided you don't like so don't plan to interact with anymore, etc.)
posted by tel3path at 11:19 AM on February 10, 2010

Oh, I wouldn't worry, just be polite, if you are interested to know more about the kinds of wine and cheese and what goes with them, ask questions. I like a nice glass of wine and can tell what's good when I drink it, but don't know anything about the kinds of grapes or the sources or regions etc., if I go to a wine store I just ask for help.

You'd use the smaller fork for your salad, if there are two. I wouldn't worry about these things too much to be honest. It's good manners on the part of your hosts to make all the guests feel comfortable and welcome, and not have them stress over small points of etiquette.

And I'd agree that drinking too much and swearing are bad form. I swear a lot when in the company of coworkers who do the same, but at dinner with people I'm just meeting, I know it often comes off as.. not classy, sometimes disruptive, so I don't do that. It comes off as angry and negative and at a party that can kill the vibe and push people away. And I try to eat the same amount as other people; sometimes I've been to dinner parties where the hosts insist on giving you tons of delicious food and second helpings and dessert and you know they're thrilled if you eat a lot. But if I'm at a nice party where it's only hors d'oeuvres, even if I'm starving and would really like to chow down, I don't if other people aren't. Even if I want to. It's hard, I try to remember to have a small dinner beforehand so I don't find myself devouring a whole tray of snacks once I've had a couple drinks and get a little lax about rules of etiquette, despite knowing better.
posted by citron at 1:11 PM on February 10, 2010

I am about as close to literally "raised in a barn" as you can get without actually having been. I once dated the daughter of a successful hotelier. Listen to eatyourcellphone, because she is absolutely, 100% correct. In my case, it was a little of column A, a little of column B. You will be fine.
posted by signalnine at 11:06 PM on February 10, 2010

I might add that trying to be someone you're not never works out well, no one likes a try-hard.
posted by signalnine at 11:10 PM on February 10, 2010

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