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There's No Pas Like a Faux Pas in Society

June 24, 1996|ANN CONWAY

A CEO wipes his mouth with a tablecloth. A community leader mistakes a man's second wife for the daughter of his first. A socialite backs into a pool.

These are some of the gaffes that have been played out on the Orange County social scene.

And no wonder, say the blunderers, since stepping out is what they love to do, sometimes as often as five times a week.

"I'm out so much, I'm bound to make mistakes," says Thomas Penn Jones, CEO and president of Children's Hospital of Orange County. "I just try to laugh them off."

Jones bemoaned his faux pas out loud at the Pacific Club in Newport Beach. After realizing he had wiped his mouth with a portion of the tablecloth, he told table-mates: "Why can't they make dinner napkins and tablecloths in different colors? This isn't the first time I've done this!"

Janice Johnson of Laguna Beach still blushes when she recalls "that luncheon." She attended a fund-raising home tour and admired a lovely hostess--a young mother with two small children.

A week later, she was seated at a luncheon next to a mature woman whose married name was the same as the woman she had met earlier.

Striking up conversation, she said: "I met your lovely daughter and your two grandchildren last week."

She quickly learned that the young woman was the new wife of her lunch partner's ex. Says a wiser Johnson: "Before you open your mouth, think!"

Vesta Curry of Laguna Beach recalls with embarrassment the luncheon where she took pictures of friends: "I was snapping away and backed right into the pool. Thank God it was the shallow end. I can't swim!"

The social circuit is a breeding ground for embarrassing moments. There are names to remember, table manners to watch, dress codes to adhere to. Perhaps nowhere else in life are we under as much scrutiny as we are during social occasions.

People can go a long way toward reducing awkward moments by remembering to "think of someone other than yourself," says Letitia Baldrige, author of a '90s guide to manners.

Deferring to others is the foundation of social etiquette. One of the reasons you place your knife and fork together on your plate after a meal, for example, is to assist the waiter during his trek back to the kitchen.

But if you do blow it, Baldrige says, the best way to recover is to make a joke.

"Everyone else is dying, so you need to break the tension. Of course, you apologize if you ruin a tablecloth or break someone's prized Dresden centerpiece.

"But if it's a burp you couldn't help, you apologize, then say, 'It didn't exactly sound like the symphony orchestra, did it? I'll try to do better next time.' "

Even an etiquette guru has red-faced moments. One of her worst, Baldrige recalls, was the night a couple arrived at her door for Sunday supper. She had forgotten she issued the invitation.

"There we were, my husband smoking a cigar, me in a nightgown, and the doorbell rings."

She teased the guests about being so formally dressed, rushed into the kitchen, threw some frozen beef stew into a pot and drenched it with wine. "We made it through the evening. My husband thinks they were being polite, but I don't think they knew the difference."

As chairwoman of dozens of Orange County social events, Catherine Thyen of Corona del Mar has seen her share of excruciating moments. The worst came at an awards banquet.

"As a woman walked up to receive an award, her slip fell to the floor. She stepped right out of it, left it in a little pool. She never went back to retrieve it. I was impressed by her grace."

To survive the demands of the polite life, Thyen has developed her own list of do's and don'ts. "Do drink lots of water," she advises. "It's a good way to avoid coated coffee tongue and champagne breath.

"Don't eat much, especially hors d'oeuvres. It can be very embarrassing to have someone come up to you when your mouth is full."

And, do a run-through in new attire before attending a gala. "Get the kinks out around the house. You need to rehearse sitting in a bustle or dancing in a strapless gown."

When Mark Johnson of Tustin received an invitation to a private party with a dress code that read: "Black Tie, Fun" he was confused.

So he called upon a new friend, Tom Tucker of Irvine Cove, who told him it meant having fun with his penguin suit. "He told me to wear black tie and whatever else I wanted," said Johnson, chairman of the Orange County Performing Arts Center. "He said he was wearing Bermudas with his tux jacket and that others would dress equally crazy."

Johnson didn't know his friend was a prankster, that the invitation really meant to wear a fun-looking black tie. So he wore Reeboks and Levi 501's with his tux.

"I arrive, feeling like I'm going to fit right in," Johnson said. "And everybody is in form! I was embarrassed, but I had more fun than I've ever had when I was dressed like everybody else."

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