- The Washington Times - Monday, September 12, 2005

Q: My husband and I have been invited to dine at a foreign ambassador’s residence where the

guest of honor is a high-ranking U.S. government official. It is our first time attending such an affair, and while we have our table manners down pat, we were wondering just what might be expected of us as guests since we don’t know much about formal seating, protocol, etc.

A: First of all, relax. You can be sure your hosts will do everything possible to warmly welcome you to their official residence, which is, after all, their home as well.

A few things to remember:

1. Try to arrive on time. If you are too early, your hosts may not be ready to receive you; if you are late, you will be embarrassed and have to apologize for inconveniencing them.

2. At the door, it is likely you will be greeted by a servant who will take your coat and show you where to freshen up before you greet the hosts. Someone will also be there to make sure you see the seating chart indicating your place at table. If the dinner is very large, you may receive a card with your name and table number written upon it instead. (It is highly unusual nowadays that gentlemen will be asked to “escort” a certain lady in to dinner.)

3. The ambassador and his or her spouse will be waiting to greet you in a formal drawing or reception room where pre-dinner cocktails are served. If your presence is not announced by a butler or member of the embassy staff, introduce yourselves to the hosts, who will engage you in conversation and make sure you meet your fellow guests. You also will be expected to greet the guest of honor and exchange a few words with him or her at this time. Don’t monopolize the hosts or guest of honor, as they obviously have others to speak to as well.

4. Cocktails will be served, usually by a staff member who will take (and remember) your order. Unless the reception period is extended for some reason, it is unseemly to drink more than one alcoholic beverage, as wine will be served during the meal. When dinner is announced, do not take your drink to the table.

5. Embassies usually seat their guests based on governmental or diplomatic precedence — which probably explains why you are seated far from the hosts at the end of the table. Place cards will indicate the person’s official title (the secretary of the Treasury, the ambassador of Malta, etc.), or their honorific and surname only (Mr. Smith).

6. In the dining room, gentlemen make sure all the ladies are seated before they take their own places. Ladies usually speak to the gentleman on their left during the first course, then they absolutely must “turn tables” to the right for the second, back again for the third, and so on. This, however, can get tricky when a female host speaks to the male on her right first, which reverses the procedure. When in doubt, just look to the hosts and follow their example. (Don’t be too surprised if things get mixed up and you end up in a three-way conversation or stranded solo looking at your food.)

7. Listen attentively and appreciatively to the ambassador’s welcoming remarks and toast to the guest of honor and the guest of honor’s de rigueur reply. Try to resist any sudden urges to add your own tribute unless you are very well acquainted, indeed, with one or the other.

8. At some point after dessert, the hosts will ask guests to rise and join them in the reception area for coffee and/or cordials. It is polite to remain for at least a while before taking your leave. In times gone by, guests would stay until the departure of the guest of honor, although this often is no longer observed except in cases of very exalted personages, visiting royalty, heads of state, etc.

9. A word on smoking: If your hosts are smoking cigarettes or after-dinner cigars themselves, you are by all means welcome to join them, if you wish.

10. Remember to send a handwritten note of thanks as soon as possible after the event. Sending flowers, as well, is a beau geste that is always appreciated but certainly not expected.

Address your questions on etiquette and protocol to Kevin Chaffee, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002 or send e-mail to civilities@ washingtontimes.com.

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