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Special Entertaining Issue

The Role of the Guest

A Primer for the Finer Points of Southern California Manners

November 09, 2003|Martin Booe | Martin Booe is a regular contributor to the magazine.

Until fairly recently, I thought I'd mastered the fundamentals of etiquette, at least to the point where you could both dress me up and take me out. If I didn't give etiquette much consideration, it was because I believed myself to be full of consideration.

In this I was apparently mistaken, for when a friend heard I'd been asked by this magazine to write about the social obligations of party guests, he dashed off an e-mail suggesting that I organize my article around a list of the offenses I allegedly have committed as a guest in his house over the years:

1. Do not bring uninvited guests.

2. Do not show up drunk.

3. Do not encourage the host to invite drunks, egomaniacs who speak of Kennedy connections or pompous pedants of your acquaintance.

4. Don't spill the soup.

5. Don't break more than one glass or plate per occasion.

6. Don't bring questionable wine to the party just because someone brought it to your party.

7. [Name of former girlfriend No. 1] inflicted on host.

8. [Name of former girlfriend No. 2] inflicted on host.

9. Leave voluntarily.

10. Seconds, yes, but third helpings should be asked for.

11. It is good to assume that other guests also may enjoy caviar.

12. Do not bring your guitar just because you have a captive audience.

For the record, much of the above is libel, the product of my friend Lou Mathew's novelistic imagination. Most of it I will not dignify with a defense. (I have never, for example, brought my guitar to Lou's house. In other instances he is intentionally mixing me up with other people, so I have become what they call in the trade a "composite character.")

I will confess to one or two transgressions. On one occasion I had gotten my wires crossed and invited two friends, one more than Lou stipulated. Since one of them was a mutual friend of Mr. Mathews and myself, I thought this amounted to a Get Out Of Jail Free card. Uh, wrong. And yes, margaritas were injudiciously consumed in advance of my arrival. Not as many as accused, though suffice it to say, I was not on top of my game.

Lou's faulty memory aside, he and I are in full syncopation on the subject of the obligations of guests at social gatherings. From initial acceptance of an invitation to navigating a room to thanking the hostess, good guests understand that their primary duties are to be gracious and to add something to the evening--it is not enough to simply go for the food and drink. To accept an invitation is to enter into an unspoken social contract. The host provides the setting, you provide the entertainment.

By way of research, I also consulted a few books containing the wisdom of old, such as "Emily Post's Etiquette" (75th anniversary edition), by Peggy Post; "The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette"(50th anniversary edition), by Nancy Tuckerman and Nancy Dunnan; and "21st-Century Etiquette," by Charlotte Ford. I then adapted their advice to my admittedly imperfect perceptions of how that advice pertains to contemporary Southern California manners. What follows are some of the more common elements of protocol.

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rsvp'ing

Here is a subject that can drive even the mellowest of Kundalini yoga teachers to take hostages in a convenience store, and I have observed more than one friendship rupture over failure to respond to an invitation. The reluctance of Southern Californians to make a firm commitment in the first place, let alone show up, has been widely speculated upon. Theories range from the balminess of our climate to the balminess of our minds, though for my money it mostly has to do with traffic congestion: You just can't predict if you'll feel like fighting your way from, say, Los Feliz to Pacific Palisades on a given day in the future. But that is no excuse for being unreliable. It is surely rude to fail to respond by the stipulated date, if there is one, because your host needs a head count when it's time to do the shopping. And if a scheduling conflict arises, he or she may want to replace you with another guest. Respond one way or another, and barring a sudden outbreak of the West Nile virus, follow through.

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attire

By Eastern Seaboard standards, Southern California is a bastion of sartorial laxness, and any consensus on what constitutes acceptable attire has long receded into memory. After all, we live in a town where the supposed vagrant who crashes a Hollywood party could well turn out to be Bob Dylan, while the beautiful young woman whose wardrobe appears to have been personally tailored by Donna Karan might be drawing unemployment after her firing from a temp agency. Most people recognize this and decline to stipulate a dress code because they know no one will pay attention to it anyway.

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