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Miss Manners: On awkwardly waiting to join a conversation

By Judith Martin, Nicholas Martin and Jacobina Martin Andrews McMeel Syndication

DEAR MISS MANNERS: When it comes to parties, networking events and other “mingling” situations, are there etiquette rules for how to divide your attention among fellow guests?

Admittedly, I’m not the most patient person in the world, but I find it highly annoying when I have something specific to ask someone and am left standing by, while they chat on and on with someone else for 10 minutes or more.

Is there a polite way to break in under such circumstances, especially if what you have to say can be dealt with in a couple of seconds? And is there a polite way to wait your turn, other than staring into space, fuming silently?

And for those on the “deep in conversation” end, what would be a reasonable length of time to keep the “next person” waiting before acknowledging them with more than a quick “just a minute”?

GENTLE READER: The length (and depth) of conversations – and the wait time to be included in one – are in direct proportion to the speed with which one can make a polite getaway.

Thus the conversations you describe – both the one keeping you waiting and the one you wish to initiate – are out of place in an event designed to encourage quick mingling. The most in-depth conversations go with events that require luggage.

At a seated dinner, half the meal can be spent speaking to the person on your right before switching to the person on your left, so conversation is expected to be lengthier than at a cocktail party, where the idea is to make multiple contacts that may be followed up later.

In either situation, a desire to join the conversation is signaled by an attentive expression, followed up with more active participation in the subject matter. The current speaker acknowledges the new person, and then draws the newcomer into the conversation at the earliest opportunity.

This would be necessary at dinner, when those on either side of you have disobeyed the right-left order, and you would otherwise be left staring at your salmon.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: My daughter has booked a venue, purchased a dress and chosen attendants for her upcoming wedding. The bridesmaids have also purchased their dresses and threw an early bachelorette party in another state.

The couple has now decided to get legally married soon (for insurance reasons, etc.), and are considering canceling the formal gala. There will be obvious financial hits, but the big question is: What is proper etiquette for the bridesmaids who have bought dresses and organized a weekend celebration? The bride has already purchased lovely bridesmaid gifts. Should she plan a dinner and present the gifts? We are struggling with what is fair and just.

GENTLE READER: Uninviting one guest would be unmannerly. Miss Manners is therefore unable to contemplate the details of uninviting an entire wedding party. She understands, or perhaps merely hopes, that the invitation in question is not the engraved one to attendees, but rather the implicit invitation that occurred when the attendants were asked – and agreed – to participate. Separating the legal and formal wedding is common, and should not be used to justify the contemplated rudeness.

Please send your questions to Miss Manners at her website,; to her email,; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.

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