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Party Speak--a Universal Language

November 24, 1989|ANN CONWAY

Party animal Andy Warhol summed it up best: "A great party person is someone who's looking for a new place to be fun, not just have fun."

So how do you be fun at a party? Not by swinging from the Baccarat chandelier and hosing down your pals with Dom Perignon. And certainly not by gadding about with a fringed lamp shade on your head. And no, not even by whipping out the old harmonica and playing "Swanee River" or by sporting a boutonniere that's really a squirt gun.

What's left? Party Speak, the Esperanto of the ballroom, that's what.

Now, if you were in the Ritz-Carlton ballroom Monday night attending Le Diner d'Automne, an affair celebrating gustatory delights prepared a la master chef Auguste d' Escoffier, you would have learned something about Party Speak. "Since Les Amis d'Escoffier Society is dedicated to the art of good living only," the program read, "it is forbidden, under threat of expulsion, to speak of personal affairs. . . . "

Which brings us to rule No. 1: Speaking of your personal affairs is a Party Speak no-no.

"I don't want to hear about somebody's imminent divorce when I'm at a party," says Dorothy Yardley, a social scribe (who says she has attended "thousands of parties") for the Balboa Bay Club since 1953. "I like to hear small talk, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. I like to talk about music, theater, current events, current problems."

But more often, Yardley says, she hears about "my latest trip, the Rolls-Royce my husband gave me," that sort of thing. "It's sickening!" she says. "Absolutely sickening!"

What's worse, Yardley says, is people who talk about their health. "You go into a crowd of older people and you hear 'hypodermic' here, and 'my legs!' there, and I just want to say, 'Shut up.' Frankly, I don't remember much of what anyone says at a party unless they get into a political scandal, and then I speak up and make a loud noise. You're not supposed to talk religion or politics at parties, but I admit I violate both."

Western Digital CEO Roger Johnson says he doesn't talk partisan politics at parties. "But I sure talk issues," he says. "I don't talk religion because it's just too personal."

The secret to successful Party Speak, says Johnson, is to not take yourself too seriously and to laugh a lot. "Talk to people about things you know those people are interested in. And don't talk about yourself."

As chairman of the Guilds of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Johnson's wife, Janice, is an omnipresence on the arts party circuit. The secret to a successful party experience is "just being yourself," says Janice, who, with Roger, sat with former President Reagan when he was a guest at Willa Dean and William Lyon's Coto de Caza home. "When I sat with Reagan, no one had to worry about what to say. He did all of the talking."

If he hadn't? "Well, I would've asked him about his roles in Hollywood. But I wouldn't have asked him about Jane Wyman. Ex-wives are taboo.

"You have to keep score, know who is married to whom and who was married to whom. You don't want to put someone in an uncomfortable situation and make yourself look foolish." Janice's rules of acceptable Party Speak go like this: "Make the other person feel important; ask them about themselves. Give them your undivided attention. Be sincere. And stay away from politics--especially with women! I have friends who are on both sides of the abortion issue, and I respect their opinion. I'm certainly not going to try to force my opinion on them at a party or anywhere. I think you can be too assertive. You don't win any friends that way."

Most party people are good conversationalists, says Republican activist Michael Parker, who has attended intimate social gatherings with President Bush and former Presidents Reagan, Ford and Nixon. "But there are the folks who are so glazed from going to so many parties they can't wait for it to be over. They're tough."

The First Lady is a master at Party Speak, Parker says.

"Early in the Bush campaign, my wife, Cindy, and I had the pleasure of dining with the Bushes at Don Koll's house. Barbara Bush was so down to earth. She saw that my wife was pregnant, and so she talked of children and grandchildren. Then when Cindy had the baby, she sent us a note. She really cares about people."

When it comes to chatting with presidents, Parker says he keeps it light and is duly respectful. "You want them to know they can relax and that you're not going to hang on their every word."

In general, at a high-level party, Parker says, the biggest faux pax a person can make is to ask someone what they do. "You're supposed to know," he says.

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