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The Atlantic Monthly | May 2002
Pursuits & Retreats
fter the age of twenty-five people tend to spend less time cringing with embarrassment at the memory of their social gaffes. As time marches on, adults become less self-conscious and, ideally, less egocentric and more considerate of others. So the gaffes don't seem to happen so often. However, there is an area of the social minefield where the hazards only get worse as one goes along. This is the business of introducing people at parties.
Introductions can be an especially hazardous corner of the social minefield
by Mary Killen
Things are relatively easy if the party is a small one—the host and hostess have time to brief people telephonically about what the "point" of the other guests is. And it is their duty to brief everyone. Doing so avoids any embarrassing spelling out of status while names are being exchanged—or code words to the effect of "He may not look very interesting, but he is our Attorney General." A thorough briefing also affords the hosts the chance to add to the sum of human happiness by enabling chatter opportunities. "Oh, if only I had known that your mother used to be Jo Gordon Cumming before she married!" I heard a woman exclaim with dismay five minutes after said mother had left a party. "I used to know her brother William so well in Scotland."
An inadequate supply of information can actually be risky, as a friend of mine learned at a house party on Barbados. Two other guests were also staying in the house, and as the three of them went up to change for dinner, one asked my friend, "Is anyone joining us tonight?" "Just the dullards who are staying at Sandy Lane, I think," my friend casually replied. She knew that a couple currently on vacation at a nearby hotel were coming over, but because her hostess had failed to be specific, she assumed the worst. Imagine her discomfort when, descending the staircase an hour later, she witnessed the following scene. Couple One, the other houseguests, standing in the hallway, hands outstretched to greet Couple Two coming in the door: "Hello. You must be the Dullards!"
or a large party involving dozens of guests it is clearly impossible to disseminate details in advance. And in the mayhem, with heads twizzling everywhere and all manner of human flotsam and jetsam bobbing by, forget about who does what—should you introduce them at all?
Here a horrific low point on my own learning curve springs to mind. The late Auberon Waugh, the journalist son of Evelyn, paused on his way out of a launch party held in London for one of my books. Waugh was my hero, and I had never spoken to him before. I was ecstatic that he had even bothered to attend. As he opened his mouth to pronounce his opinion of my book, the front door also opened, and through it came Philip and Alexandra, a couple who were my neighbors in rural Wiltshire.
Naturally, I greeted them, but I did not introduce them to Waugh. Instead I used body language to shoo them along and up the staircase. Waugh was on his way out, I reasoned, and they were on their way in; neither party would wish its progress to be interrupted. But in truth what I wished not to interrupt was the flow of praise that I imagined was about to issue from Waugh's mouth. Issue it did—though the wind was soon taken from my sails when another writer, to whom I reported what Waugh had said, remarked, "Oh, yes, he's always very good like that at book launches."
Five years later Philip subtly dealt out the punishment I deserved. Waugh had just died, and his name came up at a dinner party. "I was a great fan of his," Philip said. "But the only time I had a chance to meet him was at Mary's launch party." The chatter moved on. Everyone else present assumed that Philip had met Waugh at my party, but I squirmed under his penetrating stare.
The rule is, forget self-interest, and always introduce people whose eyes have met and who are hovering. The whole point of social life is to spread happiness. You need not forgo the precious conversational nugget you were about to receive from Person A when Person B comes along. Just grasp A's left hand during the introductions, so that he cannot get away until he has delivered it.
Of course, it is different if, for example, you are talking to Person A and Person B is pushing past with two glasses of champagne in his hands, bound for the farthest corner of the room. At that point a nod or a wave accompanied by a broad smile will do. Incidentally, picking up two glasses of champagne, rather than one, can be a very useful tactic whenever you're at a party where, frankly, you know too many people. It enables you to push confidently through the crowd as though en route to deliver the second glass to someone, and thereby to excuse yourself if threatened with an introduction to one of those dreaded dullards.
Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 2002; Well Met; Volume 289, No. 5; 89.