Fireside Chat: Social Etiquette and Letters b and d

Did you know that social etiquette is as easy as making the letters “b” and “d”?  Keep that in mind the next time you’re invited to dinner at the Department Chair’s home.

When the invitation comes, that’s when I find I have lots of questions. What can I expect? How do I handle this important social event at the Chair’s home?  What happens if there is more than one fork on the table?  Should I bring a gift? Is there anything I should do before hand?

The answers are easy, and it took me a while to figure it all out. Yes events at someone’s home are a little different – usually smaller and more intimate – but easy to navigate. So let’s start at the beginning.

First things first, I put the event in my phone so I have it on my schedule. I don’t want to lose the address and phone number; I may need it later to text a message. I also google directions and know how long it takes to get there.  I’ll talk about that later.

Now I’m ready to R.S.V.P.  When I host a dinner, you won’t believe how many people assume I am a mind reader and know whether they are attending or not. They never R.S.V.P. I know you know that it means Répondez s’il vous plait – please respond.  I always notify my host of any dietary needs I have.  The dinner planned may include a food item I’m allergic to or can’t eat. The host appreciates knowing that up-front so they can plan accordingly. I know I do.

If the invitation is for me. They mean only me. It’s not appropriate to ask if you can bring a friend or even your mom. I did that one time.  I assumed I could bring someone to a wedding —so I responded “yes” with 2 attending.  It was awkward.  The bride had to reach out to me and say… the invitation is only for you.

I often ask the host if I can bring anything. Most often they say “no”. If they say no, I bring a small gift regardless.  What kind of gift do I bring? I usually bring– wine or flowers- but I make it something that doesn’t put my host to work.  Flowers in a vase with water are fine.  I avoid flowers wrapped in plastic that require my host to find a vase, arrange the flowers etc. A potted orchid plant or a bottle of wine always works.

Another important rule I follow is not to arrive early.  My host still may be involved in preparations. The best time to arrive is within 15 minutes after the event’s start time. That is why I checked how long it would take to get there so I can arrive at the correct time.

Also, I don’t want to be the last one to leave.  After the coffee and dessert are served, I figure out it’s time to gather my belongings, say my goodbyes, and thank my host.

Before dinner, it’s important that I mingle with the guests.  I let the guests have a chance to talk with the host – I don’t want to monopolize the conversation with the host.

Often I offer my help to the host by saying, “Can I do anything to help?” instead of saying “What can I do to help?” The first question allows the host to decline my assistance.  With the second question, the host may feel obligated to find me something to do.

Most of all I stay out of the kitchen.  Crowding into the food prep area to carry on a conversation with the host may be more of issue than a help especially when they are trying to get dinner on the table. If I’m invited, then I join in.

This next step always confused me – How do I approach the table? I learned that it’s best to approach the table and enter my chair from the left, and exit from the right.  That prevents me from bumping into other guests. It’s important to keep all personal belongings off the table – cell phones, keys, purses, elbows.

Here is the part you’ve been waiting for – the letters “b” and “d”.  Now as you glance at the table setting from your seated position, most people become confused. I see this all the time when I am at a sit-down dinner at a conference even with distinguished guests. The ultimate question is – who owns which coffee cup, wine or water glass?  I hear this all the time, “Is this one mine or yours?”

Once you learn this you”ll always know which one is yours and can kindly inform the person next to you that this one is yours and that one is theirs. Someone taught me this and I share it all the time. Here is how you do it – it is fail safe.

You are seated. Start with your left side and think of the letter “b” – that stands for your bread plate.  Now look to your right side and think of the letter “d” – that stands for drinks.  In the middle between “b” and “d” is the dinner plate or entree. Therefore, you can spell “bed” and remember what belongs to you.

An even better way to do this is – using your left hand, take your pointer finger and thumb and make the letter “b” and using your right hand, take your pointer finger and thumb and make the letter “d”.  You can’t go wrong. You can’t make a “d” in the wrong hand.

The wine glass will be the closest to you and the water glass behind the wine glass. They are always on the “d” side.  If the coffee cup is preset, it will be set above the spoons. So, when your neighbor starts to grab for your coffee cup you can gently remind them, that cup is for you.

How about all those extra utensils?  I find it can be confusing. The key I found is to start from the outside and work my way in. Salad fork will be on the outside, the main dinner fork will be closer to the dinner plate. Dessert fork and/or spoon may be north of the dinner plate. Look for them there if they have been preset.

Success! Dinner is over.  It was a great event. I knew what to do and did it ever so well. When I return home, I make sure I follow up with a thankyou note. I compliment the host for a lovely evening and the delicious food. I know I love to text or email – but if I really want to score points and get an invite back – a hand-written note is sent. Those are appreciated.

So remembers, to RSVP, Simple gift, Mingle, Practice making “b” and “d”, Outward in, Thank you. Now youare ready to share the letters “b” and “d” with others!

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My experience as the chief academic officer and administrator charged with providing vision and leadership in planning, guiding, and coordinating all aspects of graduate education from admission through graduation at two major research universities provides the foundation for our fireside chats.

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