- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 6, 2006

My husband is a partner in a successful company that has dealings with both the United States and foreign governments. We socialize a great deal for business and pleasure. Lately, however, I am noticing he can’t seem to turn off the corporate spiel when we are out together, and frankly, it is getting embarrassing.

I understand that shop talk and even a bit of salesmanship are commonplace at Embassy Row receptions, charity fund-raisers and the like. What disturbs me is my husband’s constant buttonholing of officials to talk about specific deals, hand out his card in public, etc. When he does this at strictly private affairs, such as the birthday of a prominent ambassador not long ago, I just want to disappear into the woodwork.

He, on the other hand, says “everybody does it” and says it’s often the only way to gain access to someone who otherwise might not return his calls. What do you think?

A: Far be it from me as a journalist who covers social events to say no one should ever “buttonhole” public figures at a party. Otherwise, I wouldn’t get a story. To be perfectly rational about the situation, the officials attending such quasi-public events aren’t so naive as to think they won’t be approached on a variety of subjects by other guests. It’s all part of the game, and they understand that.

Your husband’s actions, however, are not based on the people’s right to knowledge based on a free press, but rather on personal gain through his company’s success. Though his product may well be a revolutionary way to save millions for taxpayers or find a cure for a rare disease, that does not give him the right to accost VIPs at a party.

Strictly speaking, the rule is that business and partisan politics should not be discussed during private social affairs under the principle that breaking bread together at the end of the day is meant to be a time of mutual comity and social interaction on a relaxed personal basis. Conversation about family, friends, travel, pastimes and other “safe” topics is always preferable at such occasions.

That being said, there certainly is no harm in introducing or reintroducing oneself and one’s company affiliation when encountering a person of importance.

This may not be acceptable behavior elsewhere, but the practice is well-established in Washington and is not about to go away anytime soon. In most instances, Mr. Cabinet Secretary or Madame Ambassador will be more interested to know whom they are meeting and what they do rather than being introduced to yet another faceless person in a crowd.

Tell your husband he needs to cool it if he is coming on too strong by monopolizing someone’s conversation for more than a few minutes for any reason — especially anything that may be perceived as business-related.

If he doesn’t know when to quit, he needs to acquaint himself with some of the telltale body-language signs that his prey wishes to move on (a move away, darting eyes, ambiguous verbal responses).

Otherwise — unless he is completely shameless — he runs the risk of embarrassingly beingmaneuvered out of the way by what is known as the “bum’s rush.”

Margaret Thatcher was most accomplished at this. Her method: giving a handshake with the right hand while deftly propelling the person away with her left hand on the person’s right forearm. (I know from experience because the Iron Lady once did it to me.)

The whole point of socializing for your husband and many Inside-the-Beltway types is to gain access to important people they might not otherwise be able to contact or meet. These events are a time-honored way to make an end run around extensive batteries of personal, private and executive assistants paid to safeguard such personages in their exclusive bubbles.

Again, try to persuade your husband not to overdo it when he gets his moment in the sun. He should back off immediately if there is no interest in what he has to say. If the official does turn out to be interested in further communication, he or she will not hesitate to suggest a way in which your husband can follow through at a later time.

Regarding the exchange of business cards: It is rather crass to hand them out at private parties, although such practice has become commonplace. Generally speaking, if a person of great importance asks how to contact you, by all means offer your card. Don’t, however, ask for one in return if it is not offered. This is definitely a “Don’t call us, we’ll call you” situation.

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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