When I was a senior in high school in Chandler, AZ, I participated in a rather unusual experience for a young millennial woman: A cotillion ball. This fancy-dress dance was preceded by months of etiquette training. I learned how to properly set a table, mastered a mean curtsey, and discovered the bizarre rule that, when you need to spit out a bone or piece of gristle, you’re supposed to do so onto your fork. (Ew.)
While some of these niceties have proved less than useful in the years since my cotillion (I’ll use my napkin if I need to spit something out, thank you very much), others have stayed with me. I firmly believe that certain classic rules of etiquette are still worth observing, even in today’s world. Here are seven principles that have stood the test of time.
RSVP (even if it’s a no)
Except for wedding invitations, it’s rare these days to receive a card you can tack to your fridge to remind you to RSVP to an event. Most invitations now arrive via email, text, or Facebook—meaning it’s all too easy to take one look and forget them. But if you’ve ever been on the other end of an invite, waiting for friends and family to répondez, s’il vous plaît, you know how frustrating it can be when your offer of a party, baby shower, or brunch gets ignored.
Even when my answer is no, I offer the courtesy of an RSVP—and do so right away, if possible. After all, it’s probably just a matter of a click, an email, or a text.
Arrive on time
It sounds so basic: Arrive on time. You do it for work, so why is it okay to saunter in to a social gathering 30 minutes late? According to etiquette, it’s not. I’ve often experienced the annoyance of wondering whether a latecomer is still planning to show, and it can put a major cramp in the party vibe. Delays happen, of course, but if you’re running late, give your host or hostess a heads-up with a quick call. It’s only polite.
Bring a hostess gift
I do quite a bit of entertaining, and I’m always thrilled when a guest arrives with a bottle of wine or a bouquet of flowers. It’s a lovely gesture that immediately sets the tone for a pleasant event. Running low on cash? No need to splurge on an expensive Merlot. Get creative with a unique alternative like a jar of jam or box of chocolates.
Don’t bring a friend (unless you’ve asked)
Hello, friend’s random cousin from Ohio, nice to see you at this dinner for eight that’s now dinner for nine. (Oh wait, no, it’s actually not.)
Bringing an additional guest may sometimes be just fine, but it makes some major assumptions about your host or hostess’ ability to include one more person. On several occasions, I’ve had to grin and bear a surprise visitor–- and hope my beef bourguignon will stretch to accommodate them. If you’d like a friend to join you at an event, it’s always best to clear it with your host at least 24 hours (preferably sooner) beforehand.
Learn to set a table properly
It may sound out of touch in an era when young adults are opting for disposable plates over china and paper towels over napkins to save money, but there’s something to be said for properly setting a table. Back in my days of cotillion prep, this is one skill I’m very thankful I learned. It’s allowed me to create an elegant, “proper” setup at many a dinner party—and know the order of using utensils in formal dining. (Hint: Work your way from the outside in.) Here’s a quick tutorial on table settings for every occasion.
Wait until all are seated and served before eating
Your mom probably drilled this one into your head, and for good reason. Whether at a restaurant, a dinner party, or family meal, waiting until everyone in your party is seated and served before digging in is a simple way to show respect. Granted, at a mix-and-mingle potluck or buffet, it’s not always necessary to wait until the last person grabs a plate. In general, though, it’s a simple etiquette practice that puts others before your own appetite.
Send a thank-you note
Writing thank-you notes is one polite to-do that will never go out of style. Beyond the usual cards after Christmas or a birthday, you might even take things a step further to thank someone after a simple act of kindness. One dear friend of mine frequently sends me a thank-you note following a party at my house or even after we’ve had a good conversation over lunch. It’s a thoughtful act that touches me every time. And besides, who doesn’t like getting mail from friends?
Originally published October 15, 2019.