Cocktail Party Panache


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Don't you just think the world of someone who extends a wet, ice cold hand for you to shake? And, aren't you simply overwhelmed by guests who look like they're practicing juggling 101 every time they meet someone new? Of course not. Nor is anyone impressed by your social savvy when you behave like a bungling amateur at an affair. However, cocktail party panache is easily mastered. By learning a few simple rules and by practicing some easy maneuvering, you, too, can handle canapes and cocktails with panache and make impressive first impressions.

Learning the Basics: Panache starts well before you arrive at any function, but not because you've hired a limousine. Seasoned party goers understand why they're attending an event. They've done their homework about the other attendees, and they've determined their goals in attending. Then they go to work on their attitude. Do whatever mental gymnastics it takes to put you in a positive frame of mind. Or stay home; there is no alternative if you want to succeed.

When you walk into a room, walk with purpose: First impressions are made, for the most part, within 5 seconds of meeting someone. That doesn't get you past the "How do you do's." In fact, words only account for 7% of an initial impression. Vocal quality accounts for another 38%. A whopping 55% of any first impression is based on non-verbal perceptions of appearance and behavior.

Keep Your Purpose in Mind: The bar or the hors d'oeuvres table need not be your first port of call. The purpose of any business/social function should not be free food or unlimited booze. Social occasions, especially those that are business-related, are about people and making connections. Concentrate on greeting and meeting people, and on getting into conversations rather than on appeasing your appetite. Remember to make eye contact while having a discussion. No one wants to talk with someone who is always scanning the room for a more important prospect.

Keep conversation clean, avoiding any sexual innuendoes. Excessive flirting is not appropriate, especially at a business-related affair. Also, steer clear of taboo topics like dieting, health (yours or theirs), the cost of anything, malicious gossip (yes, you do know when it's malicious), religion and politics. Most important, don't leave someone hanging. Close a conversation before moving on to another person or group.

Guidelines for Eating and Drinking: Never, ever, drink on an empty stomach; stop on the way to the event to grab a snack if necessary. The risks of losing control or being indiscrete are too great. In fact, be sure to pace your alcoholic intake throughout the course of the evening so you won't reveal your company's secrets to a major rival or tell a client's spouse what you really think of her.

At the bar or food station, get what you want and move away. Don't hold court directly in front of the bar; give others a chance to get something too. But, how can you move away when you have nowhere to put the food and drink? Here's where a little practice is required.

How to juggle hors d'oeuvres and accoutrements: First of all, the right hand should always be kept free to shake hands with any man or woman who may be arriving or leaving. Food, drink, napkin - everything - goes into the left hand. Then you'll never look like an amateur juggler when the opportunity to meet someone new presents itself. While all this may sound like an even more ridiculous juggling act, it really isn't.

Here's how to do it: Take that cocktail napkin and put it between the ring and baby finger of the left hand. Then, spread the ring and middle fingers to act as a base for the plate of hors d'oeuvres. Use the thumb and index finger to hold the stem or base of the glass and to stabilize the top of the plate at the same time. As you need something, reach for it with the right hand, use it, then return it to the appropriate finger slot in the left hand before continuing.

A cold, wet drink should never be held for more than the time it takes to have a quick sip. In fact, a chilled drink like white wine should be held by the stem, never the bowl, so you don't heat the drink. Hold a highball by the base of the glass rather than wrapping your hand around the drink. Only room temperature drinks, like red wine, brandy or a neat scotch that benefit from the added body heat to release the bouquet, are held by the bowl of the glass.

Don't fill your plate to overflowing. People seldom notice you going back for seconds at large cocktail functions; they will notice the mountainous heap on your plate. And, claiming it's for the table sounds like an excuse, not the truth. A pertinent example comes to mind: while on a three-day promotional cruise several years ago, a businessman reached for a cookie on a large silver tray heaped with a generous assortment when a woman yelled to him not to touch; the cookies were all hers. The businessman remembered her months later when she tried to solicit his firm's business.

If refreshments are being served by waiters, all the better. It eliminates the necessity for a the plate ... provided greed doesn't get the better of you and you try to take more than one hors d'oeuvre at a time. Refuse if the foods are messy, dippy or drippy. Murphy's Law will ensure that the drip lands on the most difficult or expensive to clean article of clothing you happen to be wearing.

While food served on toothpicks or cocktail sticks may keep your fingers clean, there is the problem of what to do with those sticks. Don't litter, but don't put them back on the serving tray; it is unappetizing to others and it's unhygienic. If no containers have been provided for the toothpicks, put them in an ashtray, on a dish or on the tray when the waitstaff is collecting empty glasses. If nothing is available, wrap the toothpicks in a napkin and dispose of them later.

How to Handle Difficult Foods: Some foods, although they may not be messy, can still create problems. Years ago, fraternities used the olive test on pledges, serving them olives without providing a place to put the pits, to ascertain the pledge's social savvy. While that may no longer be a criterion at fraternities, in business/social situations it does help to know how to handle difficult foods. Here are some guidelines:

  • Olives with pits are held in the fingers and eaten in several bites, then the pit is discarded on the side of your plate, in an ashtray or into a napkin.
  • When eating shrimp with the tail still on, hold the shrimp by the tail and dip it into the sauce once. Eat it in one bite if it is not too large. Otherwise, eat it in two. Then discard the tail as you would olive pits or toothpicks.
  • Crudites are dipped into the accompanying sauce only once. Never, ever dip something from which you've already taken a bite back into the sauce. Hold your cocktail napkin beneath the vegetable to catch any drops of sauce that may fall.
  • Bite carefully into cherry tomatoes or puff pastry to avoid spraying yourself and everyone within arms length.
  • Always exercise caution to avoid burning yourself when biting into hot hors d'oeuvres. Test the temperature unobtrusively with the tip of your tongue, and remember that the inside is usually quite a bit hotter.
  • When an hors d'oeuvre tastes unpleasant, don't just spit it out. Turn your back to the others before transferring it from your mouth to the cocktail napkin. Find a wastebasket to dispose of it immediately yourself.


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