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Lay down the rules for party at home

Dear Miss Manners: This winter, I will be participating in a debutante ball, and, in accordance with tradition, my parents are hosting a cocktail party at our home a few weeks prior to the ball. Looking around at the way people present themselves these days, we are concerned about making sure that our guests understand that even though it is at our house, this is to be a formal party.

What is the best way to communicate that on the invitation? Should we say “coat and tie” or “cocktail attire” or something entirely different?

Secondly, have you discovered any wording that induces people to actually respond to an invitation, because, in my experience, the typical R.S.V.P. is not effective.

I wish these were not issues, but it seems that this is what society requires.

Gentle Reader: You couldn’t wish this half as much as Miss Manners does. A society that cannot agree on the simplest things, such as how to dress on specific occasions, or whether to comply with the most obvious necessities, such as letting a host know whether or not you plan to show up, exists (as Miss Manners knows only too well) in a state of annoyance.

Dress terms, even apparently simple ones, are so widely interpreted as to be meaningless. Does “formal” mean evening clothes or just making sure you are wearing shoes? Does “informal” (or that awful word, “casual”) mean real suits or sweat suits?

Miss Manners suggests that instead of dealing with the problem by stating a code, you try making people realize that this is a special enough occasion that those who don’t know the appropriate dress had better ask you.

To this end, your invitations should be simple, traditional and correct. No funny colors or do-dads on the cards, no dumbing down the third-person wording. The event should not be called a cocktail party – if you are a debutante, you are legally too young to drink – but a tea. And you must address your guests by their full names – no nicknames – with honorifics.

The only wording that you can be reasonably sure will get a response is on a court summons.

Dear Miss Manners: In my profession, I work with many elderly folks. Lord knows I love and respect them and appreciate that their business provides my livelihood, but it gets irritating to hear the same sanctimonious cliches over and over. Examples: “Well I’m ———— years old and won’t be around much longer” and “I’m so old I don’t even buy green bananas anymore.”

These are meant to elicit sympathy or attention because I already know their age.

Can you suggest a gentle rejoinder? Or should I continue to bite my tongue and say something like I’ve always said, “Well I hope you’re gonna be around for a lot longer”? Sometimes I’m tempted to say, “Well, we’re all gonna die sometime,” but that seems a bit cynical.

Gentle Reader: Not really.

Well, yes, really we are all going to die sometime, Miss Manners supposes, although she, like you, prefers not to dwell on that. But it does not strike her as particularly cynical for you to generalize about the announcements that are regularly and rather tediously put before you.

It is not a smart remark you need, because there is no point in continuing the topic. What you need is patience and the ability to get in first with conversation openers of your own.

Old people are particularly noted for repeating themselves, but the fact is that nearly everyone has a set patter that is supposed to pass for wit when nothing else presents itself. Start something else, even if it is only “Was that your granddaughter I saw with you?””

Readers may write to Miss Manners at MissManners @unitedmedia.com, or via postal mail at United Media, 200 Madison Ave., Fourth Floor, New York, NY 10016.


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