What's the protocol for puckering up at holiday parties? (Alex Nabaum / For the Times )
You're hosting cocktails for 100 of your nearest and dearest in a week's time. What do you say to the 75 who still haven't bothered to open the Evite?
You overhear a party guest announcing he's recovering from swine flu -- and he's standing under the mistletoe. Do you have to pucker up?
You're newly unemployed and your best pal gives you a Goyard bag whose price tag approximates a car payment. How should you break it to her that you won't be reciprocating?
Every holiday season brings its own set of etiquette challenges, and this year is no different. Electronic correspondence, whether it be through Facebook, Evite, e-mail, Twitter or text message, has created the need for a new set of social skills. So has the economy, as people try to navigate the annual traditions of gifting and tipping while budgets are being squeezed.
And if that isn't enough to dampen spirits, there's the H1N1 virus, which has made the mini Purell hand sanitizer the holiday season's must-have accessory. Cough, cough, wheeze isn't exactly the best icebreaker.
After having your parking space stolen out from under you at the mall on Black Friday, and being tackled for the last Zhu Zhu pet at Target, it would be easy to think the holidays bring out the Grinch in people. But etiquette experts say that's not always true.
"When we're holding up the airport security line because we're on the phone telling people we are running late, we're at our worst because we are not aware of the people around us. We're stressed, rushed or running around trying to multitask," says Anna Post, author and spokeswoman for the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vt. "But when we celebrate with our friends and family, we are at our best because we know we are supposed to bring our A-game."
That starts with sending a polite invitation. For all but very formal occasions (weddings), electronic invitations are acceptable, but experts disagree on the delivery system.
Fashion publicist-turned-etiquette enthusiast Cooper Ray, whose L.A.-based website Social Primer specializes in men's manners, considers communications that originate at Evite cheap and those from Paperless Post chic. (Both websites allow users to design electronic invitations that are sent via e-mail.) "I also send out a lot of e-mail invitations from my personal account," he says.
Thomas P. Farley, creator of the website What Manners Most and a columnist for Pingg who lives in New York City, disagrees. "E-mail is the lazy way out. If you can't take the trouble to log onto a website and create something with flair that gathers all the tools together that you and your guests will need, then maybe you don't have the time to throw a party."
Whatever form the invitation comes in, it's a guest's responsibility to reply as soon as possible.
"You hate to say 'no,' to be a downer, and you think you should hold off until you're sure," Farley says. "But you should treat any electronic invite like you would a paper one and respond right away. You can tick the box that says 'maybe,' which at least gives the host a sense that you got the invite, that it didn't go to the wrong address."
Guests should know that many online invitation sites have features that allow a host to see who has opened an invitation -- and how many times. So don't be a party peeping Tom, lurking in cyberspace until the guest list is up to your standards. And once you've made a commitment to attend, keep it.
"Not to show up," Ray says, "is a slap in the face."
If you can't make it, don't feel as though you have to explain in detail why. (Does anyone really want to hear about your hernia problems?)
"There is a whole thing in the Evite world of people one-upping with their declines," Post says. (I can't make it because I'll be rock climbing in Yosemite or adopting a baby in Malawi, that kind of thing.) "You can just say you're sorry and explain offline."
Guests are not required to bring anything to a party, but it's a lovely gesture, Post says. "Some people bring a sweet item, a box of chocolates or a bottle of wine if you know your hosts drink," she adds. (Ray recommends inexpensive sparkling wine, such as Cristalino Cava Brut, which costs about $9.)
"Flowers in a vase are also nice, so your host or hostess doesn't have to interrupt party prep. Or, a cute trend I saw at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas that could be applied to a holiday party is breakfast bread -- for your host to eat the next morning," Post says.
Once the party is in full swirl, palms are being pressed and cheeks kissed, don't immediately try to banish the biohazards; wait to pull out the Purell until you are in private. "I do all my hellos, all my air kisses and then make a hasty retreat to the bathroom to scrub my hands like 'Silkwood,' " Ray says.
And if a guest seems to be under the influence of swine and not wine? "A host should be kind and direct," Post says. "Something like, 'Sarah, you don't look so well. Maybe we should hang out another time.' "