How to Navigate a Party

Gracious greeting and graceful eating―when you can’t afford to make a bad impression.

  • Sarah Humphreys
It's a party for 500, replete with flaming torches and fondues. You know two of the guests. And so you spend the next few hours shaky-legged and knee-deep in monosyllabic small talk, desperately trying to dip but not drip.

"It's normal to be apprehensive at cocktail parties," says Geralyn Lederman, Ph.D., of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. "We're afraid of being judged, and that's exactly what's happening." Here's help.


Greeting

You are required to hold a drink, clutch a purse, shake hands, reach for food, be charming and savvy, and even gesticulate. Piece of cake.


What to Do With Your Hands

You have only two, but here's a party-tested strategy:
  • Hold your cocktail in your left hand. Wrap a napkin around the glass and wipe off your right hand after eating an hors d'oeuvre.
  • Use your right hand for (alternately) shaking and eating. People will be greeted with a warm, dry, clean handshake.
  • Sling your handbag over your left shoulder. Or, better yet, carry a featherlight bag and hang it from your left arm or wrist.
  • Stand next to a table. If there's one nearby, you can ignore all the above rules.  


What to Talk About

Awkward silences aren't common during small soirees with friends, but at company holiday parties, they're as regular as red sweaters. Here's how to break the ice:
  • Discuss current events. "We used to worry about what we were going to talk about, what we had in common," says Susan RoAne, author of How to Work a Room. "Now there's a new national dialogue."
  • Ask "How are you? How is your family doing?"
  • Have an introduction planned. Stick out your hand, offer your name, and state your relationship to the host or event. Most likely, the other person will mirror you.
  • Start conversations about the food. There's nothing easier.
 

Eating

A lot of hors d'oeuvres are just waiting to squirt across the room or across your silk blouse. Here's how to avoid messes and the messy situations that ensue.


What to Reach For

Out of the sea of tray-wielding waiters, choose hors d'oeuvres that are:
  • Bite-size. If you can pop an item into your mouth all at once, you'll eliminate the risk of the filling oozing onto you or―even worse―onto someone else.
  • Sturdy. They should be able to hold their own. Look for bases made of toasted rounds or crostini.
  • Cooled off. Test the treat with your tongue before tossing it in your mouth.  


What to Think Twice About

  • Satay sticks and toothpicks. How are you supposed to tackle a skewer of two shrimp with tails? Many caterers don't serve food that requires spindly skewers or toothpicks because guests are left holding them or the floor ends up looking like an abandoned game of pickup sticks. Often caterers provide a cup on the serving tray for depositing the used sticks or have another waiter trailing behind to collect them. If denied both options, never put a used skewer back on the serving tray. Rather, wrap it in a napkin and throw it away, or stick it in a used glass. (Do the same with olive pits.)
  • Anything drippy, crumbly, or soggy. Sauces may be too good to turn down, but they're a gamble. If your left hand is free, use a napkin to shadow the dipped item until it reaches your mouth. If it's (most likely) not free, dip sparingly and move swiftly. And don't double-dip. You may dip and bite, but never bite and dip.
  • Pungent foods. Smoked salmon, hunks of gooey cheese, and onion-laden dip will cling to your breath and cut in on your conversation partner.
  • Fish. Chances are if it hasn't been cooked on the spot, it won't taste fresh.
  • Cherry tomatoes. If you're Jackson Pollock and the host's carpet is the canvas, the cherry tomato is your paint.