Here’s my latest piece for DIPLOMAT. On the always fascinating subject of diplomatic entertaining:
It’s easy to be a diplomatic guest. Just be polite. Show up when you’ve undertaken to do so, dressed appropriately. Then do not get drunk or behave disgracefully. If the event is something special (i.e. not ‘just’ a reception), write a quick, short personal thank-you letter afterwards.
The worst diplomatic guests break these simple rules. It’s awful if a guest behaves badly at an event. What’s almost worse is if they fail to appear at the function when they have promised to do so: rude in itself, but also highly inconvenient for the host/hostess and other guests, especially if the event is a formal dinner with a seating-plan. If something happens to make it impossible for you to attend as promised, tell your hosts ASAP so they can launch Plan B.
Cultural factors play a huge part in entertaining and etiquette. In the ‘Western’ tradition it’s good to be reasonably punctual for the start of an event, and then not outstay one’s welcome. In other cultures things are flexible. Guests appear long after the scheduled start, bringing friends or relatives not on the guest list. Or, horror, they appear early to behold the final panic as everything is being set up. Gentlemen appear with ladies who are not (ahem) their wives. Then they don’t leave, working mercilessly through whatever alcohol is still being served or otherwise available. Problem? Solution! An LP of modern Slovenian opera sends lingering guests scurrying for the exit.
Sometimes receptions are large, crowded, hot and noisy. It’s too much of a crush to get anything useful done, or even hear what others are saying. Follow the advice given to me by a wily Russian ambassador: “Make your way steadily to the wall at the far end of the room, touch the wall, make your way back to the door, then leave.” More than sufficient…
Never underestimate details. We had to host a dinner for a member of the Royal Family visiting Poland. We ran a practice lunch of the chosen menu. All was well until delicious lightly grilled cherry tomatoes appeared. One false prongful: squirt, juice everywhere. Blasting molten tomato over a countess’s beautiful dress is unlikely to improve your career prospects. That’s why no sane diplomat serves spaghetti. You never know where the sauce will end up.
The worst top-level British protocol (and substantive) blunder I heard about came during the State Visit by The Queen to Poland in 1996. The wrong guest-list was used for sending out the final invitations to The Queen’s return banquet. Several Polish guests faced the horrible situation of turning up as formally invited for the banquet when they were not on the official list. Exquisite embarrassment. The Queen invited these Polish guests the next day for a private audience, so all ended well (enough). What had gone wrong? In the swirling, tiny changes to all the State Visit arrangements, the details of the very final guest-list had not been attached to real life.
Read the whole thing. Lots of tips and tricks. And horror stories.