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The Perfect Guest - and OthersBy Elsa Maxwell
( Originally Published 1957 )
Rating yourself as a host is a relatively simple matter: if you give a good party you know it; if you give a bad party you know it, and since the reasons for success or failure are bound to be obvious to any reasonably perceptive mind you learn by these experiences, remedy what faults there may be, and so improve - it is hoped - as you go.
But how many people ever bother to take a good long critical look at themselves as guests? How many merely assume that all a host asks of them is the loan of their presence for an evening? How many, indeed, are sooner or later going to have to wake up one sad day wondering what ever happened to those nice Smiths or Browns down the way who give such charming parties, but who've somehow overlooked them of late? Could it be something they've done? It could be indeed. Good guests are too valuable to good hosts to be dropped lightly and without reason. The fault in such a case is necessarily with the guest.
So then - any among you who've ever turned up missing on somebody's guest list, listen well. This chapter is for you.
To begin with, fix in your mind the fact that the impression you make at a party is essentially the impression in microcosm that you make on the world, and that your success or failure as a guest is therefore a fair reflection of your success or failure as a human being. I am not talking about material success. Money and fame have no more to do with the art of being a good guest than with the art of being a good host. Indeed, the great big self-important world of success - particularly when the success is self-made - is a positive breeding ground for some of the worst guests in the world: filled with a sense of their own consequence, they make no effort to put themselves out for the sake of pleasing others. The late Paul Kruger, president of the Transvaal and a formidable figure in the political life of South Africa, was so little interested in people not immediately concerned with his political ambitions that when he went to purely social parties and found no other guests he deemed worthy of his time he simply clammed up. Once in London one of his hostesses, desperate to have the great man say something the others might one day recollect for their grandchildren, tried to draw him out. "I came to eat, not to talk," said Kruger, and did just that. Heaven forbid he should ever have been my guest. Not twice anyway. Unless a celebrity is also a congenial human being, I'll take a personable nonentity any day.
For success as a guest is strictly a matter of personality. Look at me. Certainly no one could have asked me to parties back in the early days because of my importance-of which there was none - or my beauty, of which there was, if anything, less. I was asked because I gave value as a guest. Hostesses liked me, liked my chatter, liked my piano playing. Well then, how can they like you? What have you got to offer as a guest? And if the answer to that is a candid "Not much" -if you are shy, uncertain, if you know yourself to be something less than magnetic as a personality, then do something about it. The truly colorful personality is largely a trick of nature - either you're born with it or you're not - but if yours is on the pale side there is nothing to keep you from toning it up. You can learn to develop an agreeable personality as you can anything else in life. You may not get to the top of the heap, but at least the effort you make will keep you off the bottom.
Stock in trade of the agreeable personality - that is, the good guest - is his ability as a conversationalist, an art that is, I fear, slated for oblivion in this country unless something is done to revive in us the habit of original thinking, a taste for the cultivation of fresh ideas, as opposed to our current mania for blank-eyed hearing and viewing and the cultivation in consequence of no taste whatever. Radios and television screens that are never dark are making us mentally rusty. Certainly there is much that is interesting and good to be seen on television, but the nourishment it affords the mind is limited at best and requires, moreover, no more mental exercise on the part of the viewer than an occasional decision for or against switching channels. Imagination, ideas, a knowledge and understanding of many things - these are the stuff of good conversation, and the truly adept conversationalist ranges a wide field in order to keep himself supplied with the materials of his trade. Listen to radio, look at television, by all means. But don't let your intellectual curiosity end there. You aren't going to get very far as a conversationalist if all you have to offer a company are the by now stale jokes you heard last night on somebody's comedy hour, or your considered opinion of the plot structure of a ten-year-old movie.
Broaden your frame of reference. Reach out for new ideas and let them stimulate you to some original ideas of your own. Read the latest books, and don't neglect those classics you've always meant to get around to, either. Know what is being written, what is being read, and read it. Keep up with newspapers and magazines. Know what is going on in the world of politics, of fashion, of the arts, and if it is only a superficial knowledge, merely enough to enable you to make reasonably intelligent sounds in almost any conversation touching on topics of the day-well, that's all right too. For the average woman, in fact, a smattering of learning is much to be preferred to a preponderance of intellect. "A woman," said Jane Austen - no fool - "if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can." An unfortunate truth perhaps, but a truth nonetheless, and not as contradictory to my injunction on keeping informed as it sounds. The ability to make good small talk is one thing, but a woman who parades an abundance of education is giving herself an awful handicap socially. I am all for women going to college, getting degrees, becoming veritable storehouses of weighty and profound fact - so long as they don't show it at the wrong times and in the wrong places. And a party is the wrong place. Women who know too much are not going to be popular with men, whose egos are fragile at best, or with other women who may not be as smart and won't relish the reminder. All this with the usual exceptions. Notably brilliant women are always a joy to listen to, even for men. Rebecca West, for instance, is one of the most delightful women in the world to meet and by all odds the most brilliant and captivating conversationalist I know. Marcia Davenport is another expert, and so are Clare Boothe Luce and Dorothy Thompson. But women like these are rare. The average woman - the noncareerist, the sensibly deferential wife, most of all the single woman in search of a man -will do well to remember that a little learning isn't half so dangerous as a whole lot put on view.
Wit has always been the peg on which the reputations of great conversationalists hang, but true wit isn't given to many of us, and if you haven't got it never mind. You'll be better off and a good deal more popular if you don't try to force it. A sense of humor, yes, but that is something else again. Humor is essentially the capacity for seeing things in a humorous and generally kindly light and involves no special intellectual prowess: I have known dogs who were positive comedians. Wit, on the other hand, is strictly a product of the intellect, is usually caustic, always spontaneous, and never (as humor often is) repetitious. The man with a sense of humor who gets a laugh from telling a certain type of joke today will probably go right on telling that type of joke and anticipating the same laugh for the rest of his life. The true wit, on the other hand, never repeats. The true wit rises to the target of the moment, releases his dart (suitably poisoned), and retires to wait for the next target to go up. He is quick, he is glib, he is original -and if he can't be original he is at least choosy about his sources. James Whistler and Oscar Wilde were both celebrated wits, though Wilde was not above claiming authorship now and then of lines he admired.
"By Jove, I wish I'd said that!" was Wilde's comment once after a particularly witty remark of Whistler's.
"Don't worry, Oscar," was Whistler's reply, "you will." Thus wit-wonderfully quotable but seldom endearing. Someone has said that the well of true wit is truth itself, and so it is. But the truth as wits see it is rarely complimentary, and who wants to hear that kind of truth about himself? One thing, anyway, is certain - wit that evolves from a painful truth is not for amateurs. Unfortunately there are a lot of people around in society today who pride themselves on being wits but who are in fact nothing more than so many cliche experts with a penchant for the ready insult. No, don't try for wit. Settle for humor. You'll last longer.
Cultivate a memory for anecdote, for the odd and interesting fact, for entertaining gossip which can be trotted out when conversation lags. When you hear a good story, file it away in your head for the appropriate moment - only be sure that when the moment comes you know how to tell it. Never try to extemporize. Do as any good actor does: rehearse the bit in private before you try it on an audience, and if it makes it a better story to exaggerate a little in the telling, do so. Exaggeration is part and parcel of good storytelling. So, it bears repeating, is brevity. Keep your stories short and try not to tell them to the same people twice: it isn't easy to work up a good hearty laugh over a familiar punch line.
Learn to be as good a listener as a talker, for the good conversationalist is both, and he uses his talents as a listener to nourish his talents as a talker. Make it a matter of course to draw others out (there is more truth than humor to that old definition of a good conversationalist being someone who listens to you) and don't just assume an attitude of polite attention when others are speaking: hear them. Concentrate. Cut yourself off from outside distractions. Disraeli's wife, Lady Beaconsfield, attached so much importance to her ability to listen well that she made it a point always to eat a high tea before going out to dine, thus relieving herself of the temptation to let her attention stray from the talk to the food. In this way she missed no morsel of gossip that might be of use to her husband professionally or to herself socially: her chatty and exact accounts of where she had dined and what she had heard while dining made entertaining gossip for others later on.
Even if you are a ready and willing talker, just bubbling over with things to say, don't try to take over completely from more inhibited guests. Give them a chance, and if they don't seem able to take advantage of it, be prepared with a few topical assists. A provocative question on a subject that is slightly sensational, for instance, is a wonderful loosener of tongues. (Never ask really serious questions at a party. There's always the chance you'll get a really serious answer, and the death march will be on.) Three subjects that I have found to be sure-fire stops to the occasional silences that fall on parties are Sex, Love, and Who Hates Whom-and by that first-mentioned, let me assure the squeamish I mean nothing indelicate. The fact is that opinion on what constitutes sex appeal has as many heads as the hydra: ask a question about, say, what makes men want to leave home for Marilyn Monroe, or women for Clark Gable, or - closer to home - what is the particular allure of the local belle or beau in your town, and you will open the way to all sorts of lively and diverse theorizing.
In the second case - Love - well, it's been making the world go round for quite a spell now, so why not conversation? To take an example, in Rome not long ago I was a guest at a luncheon given by Mrs. Luce. All at once, and as may so often happen, conversation, like a clock running down, began to tick-tock into silence. I felt obliged to give it a shake.
"What is the difference," I asked in my best Maxwell Italian - which, if more Maxwell than Italian, is usually understood - "between amour, amore, and love, as the French, the Italians, and the English understand the word?" In an instant the tempo at the table swung to prestissimo, the party had come together again, and, best of all, had come together in discussion of a topic so universal that everyone had something to contribute to it and did: conversation was not only revived, it became general - which is always to be desired. The French, in my opinion the best party conversationalists in the world, are past masters at this, adept at keeping conversation generalized rather than letting it break up into so many little two-by-two colloquies as we not only do but are taught to consider proper: at seated dinners in America and in England, guests are expected to turn right, then left, at regular intervals, for all the world like good little soldiers carrying out a prescribed military maneuver. (Parenthetically, the timing of these turns is actually more a matter of instinct than of rule. The inexperienced are usually advised to watch the hostess and change sides when she does. This is as good advice in the matter as any, I suppose - though it leaves unsolved the dilemma of what to do when your hostess turns and your partner of the moment is deep into a story that will plainly take time to finish.)
But back to my foolproof subjects: in the third case, nothing seems to delight normally unbloodthirsty people more than a good rousing expose of other people who are at each other's throats, complete with the reasons therefore, and, where possible, illustrative quotes from both sides: no one will deny that there is a good deal more entertainment value to be had from the waspish things people say about each other than from the pleasantries that pass between friends. Then too, when the feuders are known to others in the companyand sometimes even when they are not -there are bound to be those who will take sides for or against this one or that, and controversy, so long as it does not become bitter, is a wonderful spur to good conversation. So then, if there is a nice, eloquent backbiting feud going on in or near your range of acquaintanceship, make use of it. I guarantee it will get a slowed-up party very much on the move again.
Still another conversational gambit I have tried, though with not unqualified success, is what might be called theLet's Get Personal opener - and my most recent experiment with it may serve to illustrate the wisdom of keeping lead questions at the level of general experience, or at least at the level of people who aren't there. This was at a party in New York at the Jock McLeans'. At dinner I was seated at a table for six with Jock, Mrs. Gary Cooper, Mito Djorjadze, Thelma Foy, and Shipwreck Kelly. Presently there came a lull in the conversation. I turned to Thelma. What, I asked her, was the greatest thrill she had ever had? To my astonishment, '`helma, normally gardenia pale, turned pink as a peony. "I - I can't tell," she stammered, and immediately burst into a cascade of conversation to cover her confusion. Fascinated by the effect on her of what seemed to me a perfectly innocent question, I went around the table, asking each one the same thing in turn. And would you believe it, not one of them would say. As Thelma had done, they each refused to answer and immediately turned the talk to something else. A question I had thought would be the greatest kind of conversational galvanizer turned out to be that all right-though not in quite the way I'd expected. Everybody talked, and fastabout everything but my choice of subject. In future perhaps I had better stick to Sex, Love, and Who Hates Whom.
Never disrupt a conversation, however much you may disagree with what is being said, by being argumentative on unimportant questions. If the subject under discussion is an interesting and controversial one and you have something valid to contribute to it, then by all means have your say. But don't niggle about trivial matters, and don't flatly contradict the accuracy of some little story another guest may be telling. Also, if the story is meant to be funny, even though it may strike you as something less than hilarious, laugh at it. Laugh easily and long. There is nothing more flattering to a story-teller than the real and honest laughter - or what he is pleased to think is the real and honest laughter - of his listeners.
When you meet an old friend at a party, someone you haven't seen in a long time, don't immediately engage your friend in a catch-up session of Do you remember when? and Whatever became of dear old So-and-so? in front of outsiders. There is nothing so brutal as leaving another guest out in the cold. If the temptation to bring each other up to date is too powerful to resist, or if you will have no other opportunity to do so in the foreseeable future, then do at least bring the outsider into it. In such a case I always make it a point to explain people and places and events as they come up, at the same time inviting the stranger to join in. "Now we are talking about So-and-so," I will say. "Do you know him?" Or, "Now we are talking about this-and-that. What do you think of it?"
Never try to hold the floor in a group or, in a twosome, to monopolize the conversation with some pet theme of your own. My old friend, the late Margot Asquith, was a vastly entertaining woman, a wonderful hostess - and a perfectly dreadful guest, simply because she could not bear dull or mediocre people: ever scintillating herself, others must scintillate around her, and if they did not measure up to her estimate of what was tolerable in the way of intelligence and wit (and her estimate was high) Margot invariably undertook to compensate for the lack all by herself. She was an exhibitionist, a sensationalist who adored having the limelight focused on her at all times. In equally lustrous company her love of attention might be met and matched, but all-star casts are rare. In the average group she was a deplorable guest, bent on disrupting the rhythm of any party in order to bring every eye and ear in her direction.
At a large mobile party it is of course possible to escape conversational monopolists: if your hostess doesn't rescue you, you can usually manage to signal a passer-by into stepping in to break it up. But at a seated dinner if you have the bad luck to land alongside a monopolist you are helpless, for while you may be fully aware of your obligation to divide your time equally between right and left, the monopolist will in all likelihood be too far lost in admiration of the sound of his own voice to remember this bit of party politesse, so that short of showing him your back in the middle of a sentence-which, while tempting, would make you guilty of a rudeness - there is really nothing you can do but sit it out and hope for a speedy end to the tedium. This is an especially trying predicament if the person doing the talking happens also to be someone whose company you would normally enjoy. Then you feel bound to show an interest in what's being said, however dull you find it. This happened to me not long ago at a dinner in New York at the William Nicholses' - he is publisher of This Week magazine-although in relating the incident I must also confess that not only was my talkative dinner partner guilty of social error -so was I, and so was our host. I was seated between my friend, Francisco Urrutia, the Colombian Ambassador to the United States, on my left, and, on my right, Victor Kravchenko, whom I had not met before and whose identity, I'm afraid, did not at first register with me. The first guilt was mine. Senor Urrutia is a wonderfully entertaining man and we were soon happily and hard into a conversation so engaging that I lost track of time and duty and completely ignored Mr. Kravchenko. Whereupon Bill Nichols made the second mistake. Bill is a good host, and a watchful one, as a good host should be, but letting guests alone when they are plainly enjoying themselves is more important to good partygiving than minding their manners for them - usually stopping something pleasant and gay in the process - and that is what Bill did then. Suddenly he called down the table, "Elsa! Talk to Kravchenko!" Well, I'm a biddable sort. I turned at once to Kravchenko, still not knowing who he was, and I found him delightful. Earlier I have advised against hosts spelling out for guests just who the others are, what they do, what they are noted for if anything, because it is always much more fun for people to discover each other for themselves. This happened now. Kravchenko spoke of Russia. I asked him from what part of Russia he came. From the Ukraine, he said. I asked him what he did. He was in tin mines, he said. As we talked I began to connect the name Kravchenko with writing. Had he written a book? He had. And he told me about I Chose Freedom and something of his experiences behind the Iron Curtain that had led him finally to make that choice and then to write about it. Up to this point I had, as I have said, found him delightful. Then he made his mistake. He plunged into politics. Now Kravchenko is unquestionably a knowledgeable man in this field with much that is interesting and enlightening to say, but political speechifying, and overlong political speechifying at that, is about as fitting at a dinner party as a dirge at a wedding. Very soon, as Kravchenko talked, I found my attention wandering. I was getting bored, trying to feign an interest I didn't feel. It was not only that the talk was of politics -I'm as keen to be up on the subject as the next one- but that it went on too long. Any subject, even a good gossipy one, becomes dull if it is dwelt on too long. Remember that, if you would not be remembered as a bore.
But back for a minute to the matter of not identifying guests. The exception to this, again as noted earlier, is when a guest is someone of importance but one whose name and calling might not be familiar to the others. Such a one should always be identified by the host, and at a smallish party there is little doubt that he will do so. On the other hand - particularly if his party is large and there are celebrities present in quantity - he may not. For this reason it is always the better part of prudence for a guest going for the first time into a group of more or less prominent people to find out for himself just who is who as a simple precaution against that occupational hazard of all unwary party-goers -that of opening the mouth and putting the foot squarely into it. To take an example: certainly no sensible new bride would dream of going to a party given by, say, her husband's boss, at which she would be meeting other members of the firm and their wives for the first time, without committing the organizational hierarchy to memory beforehand: "And what do you do, Mr. Smith?" would scarcely be the most tactful question to ask a man, only to discover that she was addressing the Executive Vice-President in charge of her husband's future. In the same way, any guest ought always to know to whom he is talking at parties where he knows there are people, important or otherwise, whose good opinion of him is desirable, and if he can't be certain he will do well to keep his conversation to such innocuous subjects as the weather or the latest fad in tranquillizers until he's sure of his ground. Better still, in such a situation let the other take the lead: if it's one of the important ones he'll soon let you know it.
In sum, then, here are ten main points for the good conversationalist to remember:
1. Keep yourself informed on matters of current interest by reading the latest books, magazines, and the newspapers every day.
2. If you are a woman with the good luck to be very, very learned, don't have the bad sense to show it.
3. Be as amusing as it's in you to be, but keep your humor kindly. Leave malice to the professional wits. You'll last longer.
4. Be a good listener.
5. Keep on mental file a handful of short and generally apropos anecdotes and/or provocative questions that may be used to fill in lulls or revitalize a dying conversation, but try not to use the same line twice in the same company.
6. Don't be argumentative about matters of no importance. 7. When someone tells a story that is plainly meant to be funny, laugh at it.
8. Don't carry on private conversations in front of strangers unless you can also contrive to bring them into it.
9. Don't try to monopolize the conversation of a group, or of a lone listener.
10. Don't ask personal questions of, or make personal observations to, people whose identities you're not sure of. The face you save may be your own.
Now as to good guest behavior in general:
First, if you can't go to a party in a mood to enjoy yourself and to make others enjoy you, if you are too tired to keep up your end of things or too distracted by some private worry to care, don't go. You won't be doing your hostess any favor by presenting her with a body in which the spirit very evidently lies pining to be elsewhere. Moods of this kind are, of course, unpredictable: all of us who lead busy lives, professional or private, gamble every morning of the year on our probable state of nerves come evening. All sorts of anxieties and pressures may blow up out of unexpected quarters during the course of a day to leave us feeling flogged at the end of it. And there is that party to face. Well, don't. When that happens to you, even if it is awkwardly late in the day (and barring the possibility that your appearance at the party is in the nature of a command performance, that you are the guest of honor or the like) go to the telephone, call your hostess, and call yourself off. Tell her the truth. Say frankly that you feel wretched, that you'd be a drag on everybody, that she and her party will be infinitely better off for your absence. After all, you wouldn't wittingly go to a party carrying with you the germ of a contagious disease: well, ennui is contagious too. Your hostess may not be overjoyed to have you fail her-for one thing it may throw her table off. But your presence under the circumstances would do that anyway. Send her flowers the next day, or a book you think she'll like, by way of a conciliatory gesture. She'll understand.
Be prompt in arriving at a party, but don't in pity's name be early. Better a few minutes late, though not more than ten or fifteen minutes late at the outside. Delay your arrival longer than that and you will only be adding to your hostess's worries, of which-if she is typical-she has ample already. If you find that for some unavoidable reason you are going to be detained longer than fifteen minutes, call and let your hostess know it, and make your message brief. Don't keep her glued to the phone while you explain the whys and wherefores of the delay. They can wait until you get there. And if she doesn't answer the phone herself don't have her called to it. Simply give the message to whoever does and waste no more time in getting there. (If I seem to be coming out foursquare against the telephone in these pages it is not to be misconstrued: my own telephone is my third hand. All the same, in insensitive hands it is probably the most cruelly used instrument since the invention of the thumbscrew.)
To men in particular - since they are most given to this particular show of misplaced thoughtfulness to a hostess - say it with flowers by all means, but don't say it at the front door as you arrive for a party. Few men realize the thought and effort women put in to the arrangement of their flowers on party occasions -on any day of the week, come to that, but most especially for a party. Then they are chosen and placed with exactly the same regard for color, texture, and size as has been given every other ornament and piece of furniture in the house. They are an integral part of the decor, and they must fit. So the painstaking hostess lavishes the most loving care on seeing that her flowers are properly vased and arranged and placed -and what happens? Comes the smiling galant, flowers in hand, pleased as punch with himself and all blissfully unaware of the fact that while his hostess cannot fail to appreciate his thought of her, she is also very probably experiencing mild dismay at the disruption of her duties his nice gesture has caused. She can't just lay his flowers aside until later on when she has time to deal with them: unless they are to be allowed to wilt they must be seen to, and now. In the event there are servants in the house, well and good-though even at that, with a party in progress every member of the household is certain to be busy with more pressing matters than what to do with an unheralded bunch of flowers. More awkward still, if she is a self-help hostess going it alone she must abandon the door for the pantry in order to hunt up a vase - always assuming there's a spare - and get the things into water. And finally, and this to the house-proud hostess is the unkindest cut of all, lest the donor be offended his flowers must be put prominently on display in her already well-flowered room, in all likelihood throwing her whole carefully planned scheme off balance. Flowers are charming gifts and all women love to get them. But please, not, when you are going to a party, as gifts in hand. I like to send flowers to my friends before their parties -no later than noon on the day of the party -but I never do so without ringing them up a day or two before, telling them I plan to send flowers and asking what they want. Or, if you prefer, you can send them the next day.
On arrival, confine your greetings to your hostess to the customary salutations and let her take the lead from there, either - once coats and hats are disposed of - by introducing you around herself if her party is small, or by passing you on to another guest or group of guests if it is large. Don't try at once to claim her whole attention with a spate of irrelevant chatter. Your obligation to her at this point is to allow her the freedom she needs to get on with the business of welcoming new arrivals and of seeing that those already arrived are comfortably settled and served. As a matter of fact, at no time during a party should you demand an undue amount of your hostess's time. Always avoid drawing her into a conversation so long and so intricate that she is forced to ignore everybody else while it is going on. The chances are she won't be giving it her full attention anyway after the first five minutes or so; half her mind will be casting about for a polite means of escape back to her other guests.
Unless your hostess has expressly asked you to help her in her duties, don't. However close to her you may be, however much you've been encouraged to consider yourself a member of the family, don't go about giving orders to servants, or undertaking to see that glasses are kept filled, ash trays emptied and the like. Above all, leave the furniture alone. Women aren't so apt to offend in this way -even if we had the strength for it most of us know from personal experience how maddening it is to have a precisely arranged room willfully disarranged. But there are men, less symmetry-conscious than women, who think nothing of hitching or hauling a chair here and there to suit their convenience or, more probably, the convenience of a female guest who, not having asked for the service and therefore not feeling directly responsible for it, feels no compunction about taking advantage of it. No matter how much you may long to join a seated group at its own level, if there is no empty chair handy leave it that way. Sit on the floor if your legs won't support you. Or you can always stand in an attitude of such obvious discomfort that your hostess will eventually grasp your predicament and see to the furniture moving herself. If she fails in this, keep standing. It won't kill you.
About the only valid, active assistance you can give your hostess is the simple humanitarian act of rescuing lost souls. She can't be everywhere at once and at a large party there is always the possibility that a stranger in the group may be overlooked. When you see such-and they are easily identifiable by their expressions of determined affability and their habit of loitering just near enough to a conversation group to seem part of it, and just far enough away not to seem to intrude -take him in charge. If you find you've picked a dud, bear with it. Your hostess will rescue you in due course and she will love you forever.
At a large informal party of reasonably short duration, such as a cocktail party, the good guest not only keeps on his feet - he uses them. Parties of this kind are meant to move. Guests are expected to mingle, meeting and talking with as many others as possible. Especially at the start. Later on when the crowd thins out and the party has shaken down to a group pattern it is all right to settle in with cronies. But not at the start. Men, I must say, are generally better behaved in this regard than women, who are fond of exercising what they believe to be the classic feminine right of holding court, or who feel it unbecomingly aggressive in one of their sex to seek out in place of being sought. Obviously no hostess either expects or wants a woman guest to go butterflying about, but neither does she expect or want a guest so unmindful of her part in the proceedings that she will, immediately on arrival, install herself in the first strategically situated chair she comes across, there to remain without budging till the bitter end. Sit if you will - admittedly women's prettier party shoes are not designed for stamina - but not in the same place throughout. Change your chair from time to time, and your company with it.
To warn supposedly sound-minded adults against drinking too much at a party should not be necessary, yet it needs to be said, because it happens; and more perhaps because, at parties, it is very apt to happen to people who customarily observe a strict alcoholic limit and know when they've had enough. Perhaps you think you know your capacity for the stuff, and perhaps you really do when you are at home and sit down to relax over a glass or two before dinner. But parties provide stimulations not normal to those quiet evenings at home. In the first place, when you go to a party you go already more or less exhilarated by the promise of a good time, and if the evening does in fact turn out to be bright and lively and gay your exhilaration is bound to increase. In this mood, then, you take that drink you don't need, and what happens? The excuse for alcohol is that it induces high spirits, but if the spirits are already high it is very apt to act as fuel to a small flame and produce an unexpected bonfire: I have seen people who are normally mild drinkers become so overstimulated by the kaleidoscope of noise and activity at a large party that the effect on them of what they believe to be a safe complement of drinks is doubled, and before they know it they are, if not woefully out of hand, at least making darned fools of themselves by talking too much, too loudly, and not infrequently with complete loss of discretion.
Then there is still another trap for the unwary drinker at a party - that is the ubiquitous pourer, the host or barman who seemingly cannot endure the sight of a glass on its way to being emptied. So he slips about filling half-empty glasses, preferably when the attention of whoever has charge of the glass is directed elsewhere. The result is that the unobservant drinker drinks on, content in the belief that he's still on his first when he is in fact, in point of volume, into his third or fourth. Some experienced party-goers with well-developed instincts for self-preservation have learned to guard against this practice by habitually holding a glass across its top, the hand cupping the bowl, thus preventing any unwanted replenishment while they aren't looking - a trick worth remembering, though one that wouldn't be necessary if the drinker would remember first to exercise his powers of restraint more, and his arm less. As a matter of fact, the best advice I can give to cocktail drinkers is that they make it a rule to drink less at parties than they would at home. Your family may be willing to put up with you if you overdo, but your friends aren't likely to for long.
When you go to dinner parties -cat. And by that I mean eat at least something, if not all, of whatever food is put before you whether you like it or not. This is only common courtesy in any circumstance - well, not quite any: such things as fried grasshoppers and a singularly revolting species of worm, among others, are being marketed these days under the guise of gourmet treats. Any hostess indelicate enough to serve this kind of thing deserves to have it not only left untouched, but flung forcibly from sight. Common courtesy, anyway, in normally hos pitable circumstances - but most especially when your hostess has not only planned the menu herself but has done her own cooking as well and has very obviously taken pains over both. Then the very least you can do is to show your appreciation of her efforts by falling to with enthusiasm, real or feigned. To wave away a proffered dish, or to accept a helping of this or that and then leave it sitting untouched on your plate - tacit evidence of your distaste for something she's done in the hope of pleasing you - is out-and-out rudeness. A buffet dinner with a great spread of different dishes is, of course, something else again: then take what you will and leave what you won't. But when you accept an invitation to a seated dinner, or to a small one- or two-main-dish buffet dinner, you accept also the obligation to eat that dinner.
In the event you are on a special diet or subject to allergies from certain foods or for any other reason limited in what you can eat, tell your hostess so when she invites you. The chances are she will then arrange her menu to include foods you'll be able to eat, or she will at least, having been warned in advance, forgive you for passing up what you can't. If your diet regimen is rigid to the point of requiring special preparation of every morsel permitted you -such as an absolutely salt-free or fatfree or starch-free diet - then simply don't accept invitations to dine out. Explain your problem to your would-be hostess, override her offers, if she makes them, to have dishes prepared to your specifications (it won't be convenient however convincingly she tells you it will be), and ask if you may instead join the party after it has been fed. Generally speaking, in short, it is the guest's duty to adapt himself to the hostess's fare, and not the other way around.
The single exception, the one circumstance in which the hostess should always design her menu to comply with a guest's requirements and in which a guest has every right to bypass forbidden foods if she does not, is when religious belief is involved. Of course this isn't always possible at very large parties: when you have, say, one hundred guests to feed you cannot, in most instances, be as scrupulous as you might wish to be about what this one or that can or cannot eat in good conscience. I say in most instances. Again there are exceptions, no matter how large the party. For example, when I was in San Francisco for the first United Nations Conference in 1945 I gave a dinner for a number of the delegates, including several from the Moslem countries. Obviously I could not expect these gentlemen to either break with their sacred traditions or go hungry. So for them I ordered the special dishes - all having to do with lamb, as I recall -permitted them under the dietary laws of their faith.
In a special case such as this, or again in the case of a small party where one or more of the guests are known to hold strong religious views in the matter of diet, it is up to the hostess to honor them. In all other cases, it is up to the guest to honor what is put before him-by eating it.
A common cause of embarrassment at formal dinners is the predicament of the guest who finds himself faced with a veritable xylophone of silver stretching out from either side of his place plate and is thereby faced also with the aching question, Which fork, O Lord, which spoon? Well, if you don't know don't let it worry you. A good many of the so-called Best People in society don't know either. Nor do they care. What could possibly be less important in this world of large issues than using the right fork? Still, if you worry about this kind of thing, the accepted procedure is to start on the first course with the fork or spoon at either of the outer edges (which side and whether it be fork or spoon obviously depending on what the first course is) and thereafter to work your way inward toward your plate. You can't make a mistake that way, and if you do come a cropper - by, say, picking up a soup spoon and finding yourself confronted with a plate of oysters - it's because the table wasn't properly set in the first place. In such a case, take the most logical-looking implement at hand. What people overlook in their fear of doing the wrong thing is that specific pieces of table silver are designed for the efficient eating of specific foods: obviously it makes sense, for example, to use a smaller fork for spearing fish or a salad than one would use for a sturdier dish such as roast beef. When in doubt, therefore, simply take the tool your reason tells you to. And if you're still afraid of appearing ignorant, keep an eye on your hostess and do as she does. In the event you are seated too far from the hostess to see her, look about for someonenearby who looks trustworthy in such little matters of refinement and follow his lead. Only don't, in this last case, count on always hitting it right. For what comfort there may be in the thought, everybody around you is very probably looking for a way out of the same dilemma, and you can't be too sure that the lead you choose to follow hasn't also chosen a lead to follow, but the wrong one. Once at a dinner party I absentmindedly picked up the wrong fork for oysters and was shortly amused to discover that everyone else at the table had done the same thing!
Know when to leave a party: to a hostess there is no more trying guest than the one who behaves as if each party may be his last and he means to make the most of it. Keep an eye on the clock (and it's an unwise hostess who doesn't have one prominently on view; not everyone wears a watch) and go when it tells you to.
Generally speaking, an invitation for luncheon at one o'clock -unless it is a card party or the like, with some kind of entertainment planned for after lunch - means guests should leave not later than three.
Invitations for tea and cocktail parties commonly specify the times guests are expected both to arrive and leave - four to seven, five to eight, etc. Observe them.
The hour of polite departure from a dinner party varies, depending on the kind of party it is. If it is a dinner party with dancing to follow, guests are welcome to stay for as long as the music lasts-until two or three in the morning, or until dawn if the hostess has gone all out and decided to make a night of it. The same is true if talent has been hired to entertain: stay as long as the talent and the hostess are willing to let the show go on, if you like. But small at-home dinners, without dancing or other after-dinner diversions planned, are something else again. Nowadays we do not observe the strict timetable that once bracketed the well-mannered dinner party in America. Forty years ago one arrived for an at-home dinner at seven and left at ten, and no nonsense. Our more casual modern customs have given rise to open-end evenings, but I should say that in most American households today a hostess has every right to expect guests to leave no later than midnight and preferably earlier. This during the week. A Friday or Saturday night party may go on longer, but not much. You may be able to spend all of Saturday or Sunday in bed, but your hosts may not, nor may they want to. Particularly if there are children in the house and no nursemaid to launch them of a morning, the late-staying guest gets no more than he deserves if he is sent on his way with a polite but firm good night.
At dinners where there is a guest of honor present it is polite practice to wait until he or she has left: indeed this is obligatory if the guest of honor is a person of rank, and it should be observed in all cases, within the limits of good sense. There are such things as guests of honor who don't realize their responsibilities as such and will stay and stay and stay. When this happens I can see no reason why lesser guests should be made to suffer. Go ahead and leave. They're the illmannered ones, not you.
In making your farewells tell your hostess simply and sincerely how much you've enjoycd her party- (never mind if you haven't; tell her so anyway) -but don't run on about it or attempt to conduct a post-mortem on the evening then and there. Say only what it is necessary to say and be gone. On the other hand, don't let that be the end of it. The rulebookers, to be sure, assert that when a guest has said his thanks to his hostess in parting it is unnecessary to add to them by mail or telephone the next day. Well, perhaps it isn't actually necessary, but it's an awfully nice thing to do and a plus gesture all hostesses appreciate. Let's face it, there is no sweeter sound than praise, and when a woman has put her heart and soul, not to mention her elbow grease, into giving a party its success means a great deal to her and nothing will please her more than your unsolicited assurance that she has indeed succeeded. Call her the next day if you know her fairly well, or write her a note if you don't. And don't just generalize about how charming it all was. Single out some particular thing for your praise - a guest you particularly enjoyed talking or dancing with, a dish you particularly liked, something new and plainly prized about the house that you admired, or the like. Something that will, in short, add the pleasant conviction that you mean what you say. All this only, of course, if you really do. If the party has been a flop and you have in fact had a miserable time and your acquaintance with the hostess is one you'd just as soon not continue, then by all means do as the rulebooks advise: let your thanks end with a courteous exit line, and think no more about it. Otherwise, do the nice thing. Tell it to her twice.
So much, then, for the general dos and don'ts of good guestmanship. Sum them all up and you will see that the underlying principle is less a matter of strict obedience to a stodgy and prescribed set of rules than of simply putting into practice the words of that old aphorism - the one to the effect that doing as you would be done by is the surest way of pleasing. It is that simple. You wonder how you rate as a guest? Ask yourself this: When you give a party, what kind of a guest pleases you? What does this one do to earn a permanent place on your list, that one to be struck off? Tick off the qualities that put a guest of yours on the credit side -then go you and do likewise. In short, do as you would be done by. That essentially is the criterion to aim for in the art of being a good guest.
The perfect guest? As a matter of fact, there's no such thing. Or let me say rather that there is no such thing as the readymade, all-purpose perfect personality to whom any hostess might confidently turn when in need of a spare guest for anything from a bridge foursome to a middling-sized dinner to a ball. Such a paragon doesn't exist. No, when a guest turns in what may be considered a perfect performance it is not of his own doing; it is due entirely to the skill of his hostess. He is perfect only insofar as his hostess makes him perfect, a product pure and simple of the company and environment in which she places him, and what may be one hostess's perfect guest may well be the next one's rotten apple.