I like parties. In particular, I really like my own parties. At other people’s parties, sometimes the only person I know is the person I came with. Sometimes the host or hostess forgets to introduce me, so I have to walk up to complete strangers, thrust out my hand and put on that overexuberant
face we’ve all come to know and love.
Sometimes, those people are confused or taken aback (or, let’s admit, genuine assholes). Once in a while, my hand gets left hanging there, in the air, alone. Cold, exposed, ashamed. This, this is not fun. And parties, they should be fun. Otherwise I’d stay home.
At other people’s parties, sometimes the host or hostess forgets to offer me whatever it is everyone else has, or doesn’t tell me where I can put my coat. So there I am, standing awkwardly in the middle of a room, coat still on, or bundled in my arms like a bulky, down-filled baby, trying to shake hands with other people whose left hands are filled with canapés, whose right hands grip cocktails, clinging to whoever had the misfortune to bring me.
At these parties, if I want a drink, I have to hunt down the host/ess and ask if I may have one, which makes me feel like an alcoholic. Sometimes, they merely wave a laissez-faire hand in the general direction of the kitchen, indicating that I am to push my way through the crowd of strangers and mix my own damn cocktail. Once there, I feel like a voyeur, almost criminal – hunting down their liquor, glasses and mixers, invading their privacy, catching glimpses of their frozen veggies and leftover casserole. This hands-off method of hostery has the added bonus of making me, their invited guest, feel like a total piece of shit. Am I just filler, invited to fill the space that would make the party look underattended?
But at my own parties, I know almost everyone. I have a place for my coat, I know where the drinks are, and I can make more food if I run out. If I get bored, I can always busy myself with hostess duties – doing rounds of introductions, pouring drinks, forcing cookies on people or fiddling with the music. I do my best to introduce new people, and try really, really hard to include everyone in the conversation. If someone looks bored or lonely or left out, I bring out the exuberant face, try to figure out what will make them feel comfortable and included, and then give them that – whether it’s a shot of tequila, a kind word or a topic, whatever it takes.
It’s a little-known fact that I have a tiny obsession with etiquette, and I think my generation could do well with a good hard lesson in the same. My obsession started young, when my grandmother and mother taught me the rigid rules of introduction – which are sort of like the rules of “usted” and “tu” in Spanish: you present the younger or less prestigious person to the older and more prestigious person. I also know the order in which to place and then use silverware, which way the blade of the butter knife should face, and the rules of who pours at a tea. I own a definitive anthology of Emily Post, updated by her grand-whoever, of which I am enamored.
I have been challenged multiple times by various constituents about my love of etiquette – “But Sarah, you are a nonconformist! Etiquette and rules are all about conformity! Why do you love rules so much?” To which I say, no, etiquette is not about conformity. Etiquette is, at its base, about creating a comfortable, safe space for everyone around you. Some of the rules are stupid and trivial, sure, but they function like the AP style guide for journalists. They enforce consistency.
My encyclopedic knowledge of table settings has never really come in handy. In fact, most of the rules of etiquette I learned as a child – how to sit like a lady, how to pronounce the word “foyer” – are complete and utter shit. But my basic grasp of etiquette’s one, inviolable rule – what forms the foundation of all social graces – I use every day, and that is this: Your job as a host/ess, and a good human being, is to reach out to other people. Help them feel at home. Make them feel wanted, loved, and cared for. This isn’t conformity, it’s basic human decency.