Q: I never know whether it's proper to serve a bottle of wine that a guest brings to a dinner party or to regard it as a gift and put it away. What's the polite thing to do?
“If I'm the host and the wine is better than what I was planning to serve, I'm going to pop the cork! But a host is certainly not obliged to serve what a guest has brought; after all, the host has no doubt planned their menu and given consideration to which wines go best with the meal. A polite guest should know this and not be offended if their wine isn't served. I have a friend who brings room temperature champagne as a host gift so the host knows there's no obligation to serve it.”
Q: I always assumed it was the host's responsibility to ask houseguests and dinner guests about their dietary restrictions in advance, but someone recently told me this wasn't the case. Is it the host's or the guests' responsibility to make a note of dietary restrictions?
“An extremely organized host will ask about restrictions before he or she has planned their menu, but it's ultimately up to the guest to alert the host—and only in cases of strict medical conditions or moral or religious convictions. Compelling a host to change the menu or whip up a special dish at the last minute because someone has recently started a gluten cleanse isn't justification.
Someone with dietary restrictions should let the host know with ample time to offer alternatives, as opposed to merely mentioning that they're a hardcore vegan as everyone has just sat down to a bone marrow casserole. Most people I know who are picky eaters have a little pre-supper before a dinner so they're not ravenously hungry. No matter what, it's nice to tell your host that you love the food, even if you don't plan on touching it.”
Q: Conversely, you've neglected to tell your host about a dietary restriction and your host has neglected to ask, and you've been served something you'd rather not eat. Do you say something about it, send it back, or hold on until the end of the course? What to do?
“The polite thing to do is move the dish around a bit, so it looks like you've eaten some of it, and then swing by a deli on your way home to pick up some chips. To say something when the food is served is rude to the fellow diners and will make a precarious, awkward situation for the host—and at the end of the day, these sorts of dinners are for conversation, friends and a jolly evening, not just culinary consumption.
If this is a larger affair, there may be a vegetarian option, which can be politely and discreetly requested as the meal is served. If it's a smaller fete and you're starving, feel free to discreetly ask for more salad or more bread, or whatever it is that you can eat. An astute hostess will notice if you haven't eaten any of the meat dishes, and would be happy to get you some more veggies from the kitchen. Remember to keep the focus on the dinner vibe and not what you're not eating; there's nothing more jarring than a girl who interrupts a good group conversation to announce she thinks cooked tongue is disgusting. (Even if I agree with her.)”
Q: Should mobile devices be allowed at the dinner table at home or at the restaurant?
“I'm of the mind that it's rude not to give your dining companion your full attention. But of course there are exceptions; phones can be excused during lunches (after all, it is a work day), and, if you have a pregnant best friend or a sick relative, by all means keep that phone (on vibrate, mind you) hidden in your lap at dinner. It's also important to remember the company with whom you are dining; if you're with a society grand dame who has never text messaged in her life, keep the phone out of sight. But if you're with a titan of industry or someone who considers a cell phone part of a table setting, it's fine to glance occasionally at emails. And if you're an obsessive new mother, mention that you are rudely clutching your cell phone just in case the babysitter calls—by acknowledging its rudeness, it somehow makes it less rude.
If you do get an important message, excuse yourself from the table and take it to the restroom (as opposed to the dinner table) especially if you need to compose a novel of an email in response. Finally, if you're dining in someone's private home, there is no excuse to leave your phone on the table. Ever.”
Q: When is it OK, if ever, to Tweet about a private, invite-only event?
“ To Tweet or not to Tweet, that is the question in these modern times. My rule of thumb is to take a cue from the host: If they're the sort of person who is into social media and has already Tweeted about the fete, go for it. But if the host is the sort of person who abstains from Twitter and Facebook, keep your cameraphone pictures to yourself.
There are definitely people who would rather die than have the world know who was at their house for dinner and what they were dining. (In that case, the host should feel free to lightheartedly mention to a particularly active Tweeter to refrain from mentioning the details.) On the other side of the spectrum, there are the sorts of hosts who love the attention—in fact, a prolific Tweeter may be been invited to a party solely to Tweet about said party!
My suggestion: if you have any doubt, don't Tweet. Once it's on the internet it's impossible to take back. Besides, if the invitation was so fabulous you wanted to Tweet about it in the first place, you want to make sure you don't offend the host so that you get invited back.”
Q: Is an email thank you note ever appropriate, or is it better to just stick with the traditional handwritten thank you note?
“I've always said that handwritten notes on personalized stationary are the hallmark of a lady, but these are modern times and timely emails can be just as gracious. In our instant gratification culture, some hosts prefer a drunken text from the car ride home saying they had thrown a fabulous party more than a handwritten note a week later. (I send an email the night of—before the bloom is off the rose, or rosé, so to speak—but will follow up with a written letter if something was particularly fabulous or personal.) But for gifts, like those given at a wedding or birthday party, when a person has time to respond, only a handwritten note will do.”
Q: How do you make it clear to the guests you've invited for a get-together that you'd like them dressed in a certain way if there's not a written invitation?
“Generally speaking, if there's no written invitation, you've either called or emailed the details, and it's appropriate to follow up in the same manner. My suggestion: Ask a few of the more sartorially obsessed attendants what they're wearing, and readily offer your own look. They'll clearly understand the party's tone if you tell them that you're wearing, for example, jeans and a blazer, or your to-die-for, over-the-top YSL Moroccan tunic and metallic espadrilles. Then they'll pass this info on to the others as they scramble to find their own vintage kaftans.”
Q: You've been invited to a friend's house and you absolutely cannot find a sitter. What's the polite way to ask if you can bring the kids along? Should you cancel, explaining why, and wait for them to ask you to bring the kids as well?
“The reaction of a host will depend largely on if they have kids or not. If they do have kids, they will understand completely—and if their kids will be at home, probably readily ask you to bring your kids too. But if they're not parents, they may very well tell you that they've organized a dinner party, not a daycare.
The polite thing to do is tell the truth and say you're extremely sorry to have to cancel at the last minute, but you cannot find a sitter—and you'd love to make it up to them at a later date when you know you'll have a sitter. Like when a relative comes into town—they're the only reliable sitters nowadays.”
Q: If you have a friend staying with you who hasn't been invited to an event you were planning to attend, and they're wanting to come along, what's the best way to tack them onto the guest list? If it's not possible to bring your friend, do you leave the friend at home while you go out?
“Unless it's a wedding or a funeral, there is no excuse for a polite host to exclude their guest from a function they're going to. However, if you know about the fete when you invite your houseguest to stay with you, tell them in advance you have a prior commitment on that particular night, which will encourage them to make other plans as well. If you are invited to an event after you have invited your houseguest, then you must decline the invitation unless it's extended to your entire party. (Declining the invitation will probably force the organizer to inquire why you've declined, which is precisely when you'll find out if the party is open to additional people—and how badly the organizer really wants you there in the first place.)”
Q: What's the best way to cancel a date you've made in advance?
“The polite thing to do is call and apologize profusely. The easy thing to do is send an email to reschedule.”
Q: When do you kiss hello and when do you shake hands?
“It depends on the person, and the person's country of origin. Broadly speaking, Americans shake hands and hug, and Europeans kiss and embrace. If the person is older or more distinguished looking than me, I defer to their greeting. But if they're younger than me, I make the first move, and I usually offer a girl a kiss and a man a firm handshake. (But I'm very friendly!)
I will say this: once you commit to the kiss, you have to go for it. No pausing or hesitating mid-pucker, or else it can get super awkward. If you go for the handshake while the other person is going for something more familiar, keep the hand going, pull them in for an embrace and an around-the-back pat—and maybe even a peck on the cheek if you're feeling frisky. (Please note: The Swiss prefer a triple kiss, so expect long, intimate farewells if you're ever in Zurich.)”
Q: At what point in a conversation with a person you've just met is it polite to ask what that person does for a living (if it all)?
“For us Americans, it's almost always one of the first questions someone asks, which can be a touch brutish. (I've met people who care more about a person's occupation than their actual name, which is extremely gauche.) I say it needs to enter the conversation naturally, even if that means you steer the conversation in that direction; for example, if the person is talking about a recent work trip, then it's fine to ask what they do. It should never be the first question, or anywhere near the first one, and it shouldn't be a forced inquiry. But, overall, work is fine to talk about. Particularly if conversation is getting boring, talking about what we do can open up a whole new series of topics.”
Q: Is it OK to take a work phone call/email when you're out after work with friends? What's the best way to manage if you absolutely have to take it?
“You should say something to your friends before you take the call, so they don't think you're rude when you wander off when your phone rings. And add a bit of color: ‘That's my boss, I guess she misses me so much.’ Everyone will understand—we've all dealt with insane coworkers at one time or another—but it's best to acknowledge that yes, you know this is personal time with your friends and you're doing work, and that yes, it sucks. Also, take the call away from the group; just because you're talking about work doesn't mean your friends want to be reminded of their own professional responsibilities!”
Q: I asked one of my very well mannered friends the following: Is it essential to bring a gift if you are staying the night/longer at a friend's house? What would a good gift be? And here's her answer:
“It could be a small bunch of hand picked wild flowers, some fresh strawberries from the local farm stand, an L.L. Bean beach bag emblazoned with your host's initials or last name, or a cashmere throw but yes, a little token of appreciation is a must if you are staying over.”