Manners & Misdemeanors

Etiquette for Awkward Cocktail Parties with People You Detest

What do you do when you see someone you abhor at someone else’s party?
IMAGE Tracy Santuyo

Cocktail parties are like the neutral Switzerland of society, where people of all stripes exercise the unspoken agreement to be on their best behavior. Still, sometimes being at your best is damn near impossible. 

On the arm of Uncouth Guest is Unexpected Plus One, who turns out to be Despised Descendant. Your father’s father’s father parlayed a tiny business of buttons into The Glorious Empire of Buttons, but Descendant’s father’s father took all the buttons in a Machiavellian fashion. Grrr.

Though your father’s father was able to revive the family fortune, refashioning the buttons business into a nationwide chain of kiosks that sell gourmet coffee, it is hard to forget what transpired, and you have done your best to avoid the Despised Descendants, especially when they are still enjoying the fruits of your family’s old button trade (hey, those earrings look familiar).

In a few moments, you come face to face with the Descendant. You feel the crazy urge to claw at her face like a lion, but you are not in the Serengeti and also you had just had your nails done, so instead you do the following: 


Remove yourself from the situation (while you still can).
Risk aversion is one of the most basic skills of the Truly Rich. After building a portfolio that includes many businesses, hectares of land, the oldest house in the city, several weekend homes, and, of course, cold hard cash over several generations, we have trained themselves to, well, avoid stupid things that will break the proverbial pot. This is why decisions are heavily considered, daring is seldom undertaken, and I’m always dressed in neutrals.

If you spot Descendant before she sees you, remove yourself from what could be an unpleasant situation by making an exit. We’re not saying leave the party. Just put as much distance between the two you via a mass of partygoers or, you know, an actual wall.  

“But why should I move?” you ask. A retreat does not always mean surrender. May I point you to the Operation Dynamo? Or when my grandmother withdrew from the dinner table because my other grandmother started her annual litany of how she would have used the Saint-Louis rather than the Lalique? First Grandmother wanted to see another sunrise, so she excused herself. Similarly, a meeting between you and Descendant may lead to a party infraction like the throwing of Champagne on faces or, God forbid, the Champagne glass itself, and then fisticuffs, all of which will lead to social death, so please excuse yourself.


Arrange your face into a semblance of a smile.
In another life, I worked at a New York sky-rise with an unnaturally long corridor. I called it Anxiety Avenue because I often had the most awkward encounters in it. I mean, what do you do when you see your one-night-stand from the last office party, the former lunch partner whose ex-husband you dated, or the man who signs your checks coming from the opposite direction?


Do you avert your gaze to the suddenly interesting crack on the marble floor? Do you turn back toward your desk and punish your bladder? Do you will yourself into a puddle of water just to avoid the awkwardness?

Before you speak up, may I suggest a little power posing? One hand on your hip, another with a glass of Krug dangling from your fingertips, and an invisible assistant providing wind to your hair, all of which translates to: “Drink in the glory that is me.”

Discomfort is a two-way street, and it’s quite funny seeing the opposite party squirm. My favorite reactions include Face With Lips Sealed Shut, Face That Acknowledges You But Suddenly Looks Away, and Face Turned Up As If Someone Passed Gas.

I must admit that I am guilty of wearing these faces. Which is not ideal when, in a civilized world, a signal of recognition is what is expected. I find that the most painless way to express acknowledgment is in stages (it’s a very long walk): Smile from a distance, nod when close, and then skedaddle.

In your possible run-in with the Descendant at a dinner party, arrange your mouth into a semblance of a smile (a hard mouth does not count) while looking her straight in the eyes, and then move your attention to the next person. You have done your duty as well-mannered member of society.


Go ahead and start a conversation.
If for some reason you and the Descendant are still in the same group, you have no other choice but to turn that smile into actual talk. 

This is not impossible. I, myself, am not a master of small talk, but when installed in a social event and left with no other choice, I transform into a font of infinite charm. I know of one other person who can do this: a Cerebral Dandy, who is an enfant terrible at work, but, because of his upbringing in a family of diplomats, turns into the most delightful conversationalist at social gatherings. It is sorcery, I tell you. 

Before you speak up, may I suggest a little power posing? One hand on your hip, another with a glass of Krug dangling from your fingertips, and an invisible assistant providing wind to your hair, all of which translates to: “Drink in the glory that is me.” 


Then, speak. I find no problem in being the first to engage in talk, because it's always better to be the bigger person (never mind that I am several sizes smaller). Also, delaying conversation, even for mere seconds, makes you appear to be a slow person that needs professional care. I am reminded of Porcelain-Faced Lady who does this, and I always assume that she’s has just woken up from a daze. If she weren’t power posing all the time, I would've called her out on it. “Your face okay, Lady?”

And now, I am going to share with you the Secret Exit Strategy of Advanced Partygoers: Make sure the hostess sees you thrice, which makes her think that you’ve been there the entire time, and then quietly make an exit.

Employ the art of small talk.
I hate the term “Small Talk.” Why can’t we do the opposite? Why can’t we do “Large Talk?” Sometimes I want to rattle the gathering by leading with: “Tell us what you have done to create opportunities for people of all colors?” 

But I know this is not feasible. In the upside-down world we find ourselves in, and in this specific encounter, do not even approach the shadow of politics. For example, I have made a blanket ban on discussions regarding old Gucci versus new Gucci.


In your conversations with someone with opposite views, stick to everything positive like, say, a genuine compliment: “Your vintage earrings are magnificent. Where did you get…” Err, not this.

Or maybe something tepid like business: “How is the Buttons Business doing?” Oh, not that, too. 

Hmmmm, I know: “How do you...uh…solve a problem like a Maria? How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand!?” And then launch into the very tune while waltzing away as you make an escape from this nowhere conversation.

And now, make your exit.
I kid, but really that’s what you need to do right now. After a couple of rounds discussing the cliffhanger of Younger and whether Famous Actress has had work done, it is time to go. 

Be firm about this. Extending the conversation longer than it should may be construed as being overly solicitous, which just reads false. No one wants to be like Random Party Person, who fawned over Descendant as if she was the Second Coming and then eschewed her entire being as soon as she left. The entire exchange just reeked of the stench of a designer imposter perfume.


And now, I am going to share with you the Secret Exit Strategy of Advanced Cocktail Partygoers: Make sure the Ultra Glamorous hostess sees you thrice, which makes her think that you’ve been there the entire time, and then quietly make an exit.

Keep the farewell to the Descendant brief and the excuse mysterious, too, as in: “I am sorry, but something came up, I have to go.” Or, something creative and perplexing: “My dog’s hairdresser’s blow dryer broke down. Goodbye.” Then put those Dior stilettos to work. Oh, and don’t forget to look her in the eye.


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About The Author
C.C. Coo
The Truly Rich Lady
C.C. Coo—also known as Town&Country’s Truly Rich Lady—is not a professional seeker of leisure as many people wrongly assume, for she has a real-life occupation: a SHE-EO of Important (Sub)Company of an Empire, for which she works very hard to make sure that the people in her care are not left wanting. She believes that manners are utterly important: “If society is like one of those costume jewelry pieces worn by Jackie O or Diana, manners would be the glue that keeps the veneer of a most beautiful thing from falling apart,” she says.
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